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Understanding disease the first challenge

Professor Julian Rood says you must understand the fundamental processes that lead to disease before you can start to control the disease itself. Julian is working at this fundamental level by exploring how bacteria cause disease, the mechanisms that are involved in the process and how the host responds to bacterial toxins. His research has promise for bacterial diseases that affect both humans and animals.

Julian's focus is on anaerobic bacteria, which can only grow in the absence of oxygen. Clostridia is a broad group of anaerobic bacteria that causes some classic diseases, including tetanus, botulism and gas gangrene.

'The clostridia generally cause disease by producing potent protein toxins,' Julian explains. 'They form heat-resistant variants called spores, which enable them to survive in the environment under adverse conditions.

'Before you can control diseases you have to understand the mechanism of pathogenesis. When a person or animal gets sick, it's because something has changed its cells and tissues. Either the growth of bacteria or the production of a toxin have caused cell and tissue damage, which we see as clinical symptoms.

'Our focus has been on trying to understand the processes that lead to disease, from the start of an infection through to the disease itself. This includes understanding what toxins are being produced and how the host responds to those toxins,' he says.

Julian got a great insight into our response to toxins during his research into the bacterium Clostridium perfringen, which causes gas gangrene.

'When you normally get an infection, the host usually defends itself by sending white blood cells to the site of the infection to try and clean up and destroy the invading bacteria. In a Clostridium perfringens infection, exactly the opposite happens. You see an absence of white blood cells in the region where the bacteria are growing. We now know that this is because the toxins clump the white blood cells together in the blood vessels so they can't get out into the infected tissues,' he says.

Julian is also a chief investigator of the ARC Centre of Excellence in Structural and Functional Microbial Genomics, which has an animal disease focus. Their research on two debilitating bacterial diseases could potentially save the agricultural industry millions of dollars.

'Footrot is a significant disease in sheep and we've been leading the way in terms of working out how the bacterium Dichelobacter nodosus causes the disease. Over the last five to 10 years, we've determined the genome sequence of this organism and the structure of some of the proteins that are involved in the disease process. We've also shown that some of the surface components and enzymes that the organism makes are essential to the process,' Julian says.

'We're also working on necrotic enteritis, which is a significant disease in poultry. About three years ago, in collaboration with Dr Robert Moore at CSIRO Livestock Industries at Geelong, we discovered a new toxin that nobody had seen before. We have shown that this toxin is essential for the disease process. We're now working with Dr Moore to develop a vaccine. This is of significant economic importance because poultry meat is a major protein source in most countries.'

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Projects 2000 2019

Research Output 1990 2017

Bovine antibodies targeting primary and recurrent Clostridium difficile disease are a potent antibiotic alternative

Hutton, M. L., Cunningham, B. A., Mackin, K. E., Lyon, S. A., James, M. L., Rood, J. I. & Lyras, D. 16 Jun 2017 In : Scientific Reports. 7, 1, 13 p., 3665

Research output: Research - peer-reviewArticle

Open Access


Rood, J. I., Thomas, C. M. & Top, E. M. 1 May 2017 In : Plasmid. 91, p. 1 1 p.

Research output: Other - peer-reviewEditorial

The Tcp conjugation system of Clostridium perfringens

Wisniewski, J. A. & Rood, J. I. 1 May 2017 In : Plasmid. 91, p. 28-36 9 p.

Research output: Research - peer-reviewReview Article