Brain Food: Superbugs And Public Health

Dec 12, 2013

Behind locked doors, in an air-sealed laboratory in Flagstaff, the world's foremost DNA expert is taking apart the tiniest and mightiest killers, like deadly strains of anthrax and bacterial superbugs. For NAU professor, Paul Keim, these bugs are some of the fiercest enemies to public health.

Geneticist and NAU professor, Paul Keim
Credit Bonnie Stevens/KNAU

Keim says, "Superbugs are pathogens that appear out of nowhere and take off. And given the right opportunity, it can really be devastating. And, it can kill people."

Keim is the director of Pathogen Genomics at the Translational Genomics Research Institute, or TGen. He and a team of scientists are called upon by health officials from all over the world to trace the origins of these infectious diseases, no matter where they occur. Diseases like the cholera outbreak in Haiti following a powerful earthquake there in 2010.

"So what happened there," Keim says, "and we were able to figure this out by knowing something about the evolution of bacteria and how they progress using DNA tools to re-construct the evolutionary patterns associate with the cholera outbreak, is we were able to figure out that this was in fact a pathogen that was brought into Haiti, and then exploded."

Cholera isn't the only disease Keim studies in his lab. There's also MRSA and a new superbug, Extremely Drug Resistant Tuberculosis, or XDR. "XDR is one of the scariest things out there," Keim says. "It's not happening in the United States because we have really good public health where we keep track of these things. But it's one of these bacterial infections that if you get it, the physicians are going to sit there and look at it and just try to help you as well as they can. But, there's not a good, clear treatment for it."

Through his DNA detective work in tracking and understanding dangerous pathogens, Keim helps world leaders prevent deadly disease outbreaks. He emphasizes the importance of clean water, screening aid workers who rush into disaster areas, the appropriate use of antibiotics and vaccinations.