That’s So Metal: Michael Johnson joins Real Scientists!

Michael D. L. Johnson is an Assistant Professor in Immunobiology at the University of Arizona and we are so pleased to have him on Real Scientists this week!

Michael Johnson2

As usual, we asked him some questions, and he gave us some answers.

What brought you to science?

Ha, divine intervention. I was a music major and didn’t actually decide to pursue science until after the first semester of my senior year at Duke University. I figured I could do music on the side and science as a career, but it would probably not work out so well doing music as a career but science out of my garage. The full story is here

What got you interested in your current field?

When I saw that a single calcium atom in one protein could control how bacteria moved, infected, and just generally perceived their environment, I knew I wanted to do something with metals in bacteria. I just thought that was one of the coolest things and it made me hungry to learn more. I really believe what I am doing can help people.

What does your lab work on?

There are certain nutrients that every living organism needs. One of those nutrients is metal (iron, calcium, etc.). In fact, about 40% of all proteins use metal. Some metals are bad for certain organisms. For instance, copper is really toxic to bacteria, but not so much to humans. Our immune system takes advantage of this toxicity to kill invading pathogens. We have also rescued crops by using copper and cut down on hospital acquired infections using copper. My lab works on understanding how copper is toxic to bacteria, and mapping out the bacterial response. We hope that this work will lead to new treatments in the world of hard to kill pathogens.

Why is your work important?

Antibiotic resistance is going up, while manufacturing of new antibiotic is going down. This is not a good trend. Bacteria have had a very long time to adapt copper’s toxic effects, yet, copper can kill bacteria in spite of a bacteria’s resistance to antibiotics. We have limited knowledge on how copper works to kill bacteria and how the bacteria try to respond to this stress. If we obtained this information, which is what my lab is trying to do, then we would have a new set of tools for fighting off pathogenic bacteria.

Tell us a little about your non-research life

I’m a parent of two girls. I love talking professional development with students and discussing ways for better public engagement in science. I like writing science music parodies, and occasionally trying to sing them. I also enjoy hiking and camping more than I ever thought I would as an inner-city Chicago kid.

My perfect day would involve sleeping in, a warm beach day with family and/or friends, and a great seafood dinner. Then randomly checking my email and realizing that I got a big science grant.

Please welcome Michael to Real Scientists!


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