Julie Callanan, a PhD student at APC Microbiome Ireland and UCC, is looking to help us better understand the tiny viruses within our microbiomes.
After graduating with a degree in microbiology from University College of Cork (UCC), Julie Callanan was selected for an eight-week summer studentship where she learned about all things bacteriophage.
Following on from her undergraduate stint in Dr Colin Hill’s lab, she was able to get a PhD position there and has spent the last two years researching tiny viruses in the human gut.
As a researcher at both UCC and the SFI centre APC Microbiome Ireland, Callanan was one of the finalists for Researchfest 2018. She was most recently part of a research team that identified 15,611 new fragments of RNA viruses, including more than 1,000 full-length genomes.
What inspired you to become a researcher?
From a young age I knew I wanted to become a researcher of some sorts. It was in secondary school I found a love for science, with amazing biology and maths teachers.
It was these women who taught me to never stop questioning how things work and if something doesn’t work first time, keep persevering. These lessons have served me well throughout the PhD when things aren’t going exactly to plan, but that with some extra work and an alternative method, you can get results.
Can you tell us about the research you’re currently working on?
When I was coming to the end of my undergraduate studies, I knew I wanted to continue in research – particularly as a part of the phage family I had previously worked with. As part of my research, I am looking to isolate tiny viruses known as ‘bacteriophage’ from the human gut in order to understand the microbial community within us.
My research, in particular, is focused on the RNA phage consortium of this population, as these have remained understudied in this ecosystem.
What commercial applications do you foresee for your research?
In recent years, we’ve seen a surge in interest with regards all things microbiome. However, we still don’t fully understand the majority of the interactions that occur in this ecosystem, particularly between bacteria and phages.
My research is focused on describing these specific exchanges and whether they could be linked with human health. Another important feature of this research is antibiotic resistance.
This is becoming an extremely pressing matter, with over 10m deaths per year estimated by 2050 – more than the current cancer death toll. We need to start looking into alternative treatments and phage could be that solution. Our research serves as a way to understand the biology of these entities, which may eventually become commercially viable options.
Are there any common misconceptions about this area of research?
Research regarding the phageome has often disregarded RNA phages and focused on the DNA portion of microbiomes. This has rendered the field of RNA phages to remain relatively small and studies of these entities are generally quite dated, focusing on how they serve as molecular models.
What are some of the areas of research you’d like to see tackled in the years ahead?
A key area of research I would love to see tackled in coming years is the impact of diet on the phageome, how this could have a knock-on effect on the microbiome and, ultimately, on overall human health.
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