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Understanding bacterial cell wall synthesis and its linkage to cell division for next generation antibiotic drugs

Principal Supervisor: Professor David RoperLink opens in a new window (SLS)

Co-supervisor: Dr Seamus Holden (SLS) or Phil Stansfeld (SLS & Chemistry) or Dr Allister Crow (SLS), Dr Matt Jenner (Chemistry) or Professor Tim Dafforn (Birmingham) dependent on project undertaken

PhD project title: Understanding bacterial cell wall synthesis and its linkage to cell division for next generation antibiotic drugs

University of Registration: University of Warwick

Project outline:

Antimicrobial Resistance (AMR) is now widely understood to be a global healthcare emergency, exacerbated by many socio-economic factors. This includes the decline in new drug development due to disengagement from the sector by the major pharmaceutical companies resulting in a renewed emphasis on academic engagement in discovery and understanding of how resistance develops. Of all the targets for antibiotics and resistance development, the biosynthesis of the bacterial cell wall and its linkage to cell division is of particular significance it is the entry point for all antibiotics into bacteria as well as the target for the mainstay of antimicrobial chemotherapy: the b-lactams.

Outside the cytoplasmic membrane of all bacteria, there is a sugar-based polymer called peptidoglycan (PG) crosslinked by peptide bridges, which gives the cell wall strength, rigidity, cell shape characteristics and is a scaffold for a multitude of other molecular structures. Disruptions of the PG structure itself or its biosynthetic precursors by antibiotics, can result in cell lysis (bacteriolytic effect) or cessation of bacterial cell growth (bacteriostatic effect). Recently there has been a renascence in our understanding of the biosynthesis of the cell wall and how this is intimately linked to cell division1. Whilst we have recognised this process for decades2, the molecular interactions that are vital and underpin the biology of this process, are only just starting to be properly addressed.

The biosynthesis of PG requires the polymerisation of its lipid linked disaccharide-pentatpeptide monomer unit: lipid II into a glycan polymer3 by the glycosyltransferase activity of either Class A penicillin binding proteins1 (PBPs e.g. E.coli PBP1b) of by Shape elongation and division proteins (SEDs: e.g. RodA) in association with Class B PBPs. A cross linked PG layer is then produced by the formation of peptide bonds between the pentapeptides on adjacent glycan strands. This is catalysed by the transpeptidase activity of Class A alone or complexes of SEDs proteins with class B PBPs. This latter activity is inhibited directly by beta-lactams whilst the former offers exciting new opportunities for antibiotic drug discovery5


In our laboratory we are focussed on several major aspects of this process including how the cell wall PG is made by the SEDs-Class B PBP complexes and how the process of cell division is coordinated with PG biosynthesis in both Gram-positive and Gram-negative pathogens. These proteins are intimately associated with the cell division (fts) and cell elongation proteins used in enable coordinated cell division and cell elongation, without which bacterial cells undergo catastrophic changes in shape, metabolism and cellular interactions which can lead to death. By understanding these factors at a molecular level we hope to bring new biological understanding of the processes involved and discover new route to future antimicrobials.

We use a variety of cutting-edge approaches to study this as well as collaboration with groups across the world in this research to allow a complete in-vivo to in-vitro approach. Importantly, our laboratory has two technological advantages over others including the ability to make the PG precursor lipid II allowing functional study of these proteins as enzymes and non-detergent methods to extract the membrane proteins involved in their native lipid environment6 allowing structural elucidation of their interactions at a molecular level.

The project will suit a student interested in microbiology, antibiotic resistance and biochemistry. Techniques used in this project can include basic microbiology, molecular biology including in-vivo mutant generation using CRISPR techniques, high resolution light and fluorescent microscopy of the resulting phenotypes to protein chemistry and structural biology including X-ray crystallography, Cryo-EM microscope or Mass spectrometry.

The ultimate PhD project will be developed with the student according to their interests and skill set with in a high collaborative research team environment. We urge students interested in the project to get in contact at earliest possible opportunity and engage in mini project opportunities (


BBSRC Strategic Research Priority: Understanding the rules of life Structural Biology, and Microbiology.

Techniques that will be undertaken during the project:

Basic microbiology and phenotyping of in-vivo mutants

DNA cloning and site-directed mutagenesis.

Protein expression and chemistry

X-ray crystallography, CryoEM microscopy, Mass spectrometry


Contact: Professor David RoperLink opens in a new window