Microbial Biochemistry

New drugs against infectious diseases

19. December 2023 by Magdalena Reichinger, Petra Schiefer
From the flu to the coronavirus – recent years have shown that infectious diseases are a tremendous problem. In the video, biochemist Thomas Böttcher explains the role that new biologically active molecules will play in medicine and what drives him as a researcher.
Thomas Böttcher and his team are driven by the vision of chemical microbiome engineering. In the video he explains his research and what fascinates him about chemistry and the diversity of life.

The ever-growing crisis of antibiotic resistance highlights the importance of new approaches in medicine. Instead of killing pathogenic bacteria, changing their behaviour to make them less virulent might be the key: Thomas Böttcher from the Centre for Microbiology and Environmental Systems Science and the Faculty of Chemistry at the University of Vienna investigates molecules that can do just that. His inspiration comes from nature: Some organisms produce signalling molecules that control their population behaviour while other competing species have found ways to disrupt their signalling. 

"We are investigating the chemistry of microbial interactions and trying to elucidate the chemical structures of these small molecular signals," says the biochemist. By understanding which molecules can modify bacterial behaviour and how, Böttcher and his team hope to develop synthetic inhibitors – thereby providing an effective alternative to antibiotics.

Sujet Environment and Climate Hub an illustration of a hand holding a tree surrounded by birds

Environment and Climate Research Hub (ECH)

Thomas Böttcher is a member of the Environment and Climate Research Hub (ECH), the new multidisciplinary research network within the University of Vienna. It is dedicated to connecting researchers addressing environment, climate, and sustainability from different academic viewpoints. More about the objectives of the network.

Currently, the ECH has 65 members from different faculties and departments of the University of Vienna. All of them carry out research in the field of environment and climate.

Overcoming antibiotic resistance

"Discovering how organisms, such as Pseudomonas aeruginosa (a bacterium resistant to several antibiotics), chemically manipulate or eliminate their microbial competitors could help us to improve our understanding of the complex interactions of bacteria in the environment. This can provide important chemical tools for precise interventions in complex microbiomes," explains ERC grantee Böttcher. "Overall, our vision is chemical microbiome engineering".

A new link to Parkinson's disease?

His research on microbial metabolites also has implications for other medical fields. For example, it provides answers to the question of whether microbial substances influence neurodegenerative diseases. In a recently published study, Böttcher and an international research team have shown that there may be a link between microbial metabolites and Parkinson's disease. "We discovered a microbial metabolite that destroys dopamine-producing neurons," explains Böttcher. This work sheds new light on potential environmental factors as triggers of Parkinson's disease.

Chemistry as a puzzle

"A big part of my daily work consists of writing such scientific papers or grant proposals, developing ideas and interacting with international collaborators – but teaching is also very important to me," says Böttcher, who discovered his passion for chemistry at an early age. "For me, it all started in school when I had my first chemistry lesson: I was so excited by this topic that I went into the library and started reading about chemistry," the professor remembers. "But before that, I wanted to be an astronaut or a paleontologist," he adds with a smile.

For Böttcher, chemistry is like a big puzzle, "It is like putting small pieces together; and this motivated me so much that I continued in this field," says the researcher, who is fascinated and driven by the diversity of life "not only in my research, but also in my spare time." (red)

ERC Consolidator project CAPSID

As part of the ERC Consolidator project CAPSID, Thomas Böttcher and his team are investigating which chemical substances control the transition of phages (a bacteriophage, also known as a phage, is a virus that infects and replicates within bacteria only). They examine these from the latent to the active state and explore how this could be used, for example, to develop alternatives to antibiotics.   

© Magdalena Reichinger
© Magdalena Reichinger
Thomas Böttcher is Professor of Microbial Biochemistry at the Faculty of Chemistry and the Centre for Microbiology and Environmental Systems Science at the University of Vienna. His research focuses on the chemistry of microbial interactions and chemical strategies for modulating microbial growth, virulence and coordinated behaviours, such as swarming motility or biofilm formation.