Research into the secret life of bacteria – University of Copenhagen

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19 September 2014

Research into the secret life of bacteria

researcher profile

Professor Thomas Bjarnsholt from the Department of International Health, Immunology and Microbiology conducts research into, among other things, the role played by bacteria in chronic infections, a highly topical field of research as infections are a growing problem.

Thomas Bjarnsholt's fascination with the world of chemistry first took hold when, aged 12, he set up his own small-scale laboratory in the basement of his childhood home and started mixing substances and elements in an experimenting way.

Thomas Bjarnsholt's fascination with the world of chemistry first took hold when, aged 12, he set up his own small-scale laboratory in the basement of his childhood home and started mixing substances and elements in an experimenting way. Photo: Mikal Schlosser.

Thomas Bjarnsholt's fascination with the world of chemistry first took hold when, aged 12, he set up his own small-scale laboratory in the basement of his childhood home and started mixing substances and elements in an experimenting way. Later on, his favourite pastime took him to the Technical University of Denmark where, as a student of chemical and mechanical engineering, he was smitten by a love of microbiology. These days he pursues his passion from the corridors of the Panum Institute. At HEALTH, he is professor at the Department of International Health, Immunology and Microbiology with a doctoral dissertation on 'The role of bacterial biofilms in chronic infections' on his CV, as well as being Head of Laboratory at the Department of Clinical Microbiology at Rigshospitalet.  

Why is your field of research important to society?  

Chronic infections constitute a growing problem. More and more people survive acute infections, more people live to an old age, and more people suffer from lifestyle diseases which give rise to imbalances in the human body. Medical technologies have become much more advanced – today you can operate and inject all sorts of foreign bodies into the human body in the form of, e.g., implants and tissue fillers, which can open the door to bacteria. When bacteria clump together to form so-called biofilms, they become resistant to antibiotics and the immune system. Therefore, we need to know more about bacteria, and we need research which is specifically targeted at finding out how they can be killed and how to optimally prevent chronic infections.  

Why and when did you choose to become a researcher?  

From an early age, while still at school, I knew that I wanted to be an engineer. I was very interested in chemistry, borrowed many books from the library and had a small laboratory at home. I'm not sure how much of it I really understood, but I spent a lot of time mixing things and was totally fascinated by it. I also took an early interest in the history of chemistry and medicine – I remember how my grandparents used to take me to the Danish Museum of Science and Technology and the Medical Museion. Sometimes I was also able to accompany my mother to work in Herlev, where she worked as a nurse educator, and where they conducted some small-scale experiments with flasks and test tubes. My father's wife was a laboratory assistant who worked with bacteria, and later on I became completely hooked on microbiology at DTU where I was taught by some amazing people. For example, I remember a lecture on biofilms, which was really inspiring. Those lectures were imbued with a very special atmosphere, and I went on to do my PhD with one of the lecturers.  

Why are bacteria so interesting?  

First of all, bacteria are very tangible – you find them in patients, but you can also take them out and cultivate small colonies of them in Petri dishes. At the same time, they are interesting because they lead such secret lives. Sitting there doing what amounts to detective work with a microscope and suddenly finding something you could not see with the naked eye, but which is of such tremendous importance to us humans, is a unique experience. Because even though we cannot see the bacteria, they can do incredible harm if you can't control them. I'm hugely interested in the interaction between bacteria and our bodies, and I would like to find out more about chronic infections. Why are some infections acute? Why are some chronic? And it is only some people who have chronic infections? And when it comes to biofilm infections which suddenly cannot be controlled by antibiotics, even more questions arise: Why do they thrive in some people, but not in others? And why are they so stubborn? I am greatly motivated by all the little ups that we experience and by the small pieces of the greater puzzle which slowly fall into place.

And then there is always the historical perspective, which is quite exciting: What did people do in the past, how did they find out what was going on when they had to make all their own equipment? The whole period from the time when nobody knew what many infections were caused by until it was realised that bacteria were to blame.  

What are the highlights of your career?  

All the milestones have meant a lot to me. Graduating as an MSc in Engineering, defending my PhD dissertation and perhaps especially my medical doctoral degree, because I come from DTU. Taking up the position of professor was also a high point. And then I think, in fact, that receiving a grant is always a real high point. I remember vividly receiving a phone call to say that Lundbeck had given me a major grant. It was on a rainy summer day, and I was walking around one of the big department stores in Copenhagen. I just had to sit down; I was completely overwhelmed by having made it through the needle's eye. It means a lot when other people like your ideas and take an interest in what you are doing. It is also important for me that my PhD students and postdocs thrive and that I am able to help their careers on the way.

As regards my research, I'm very proud of the work that my team and I have done to visualise bacteria in tissue. We started making very sharp images, in which you can really see the individual bacteria nesting in tissue in patients with chronic infections. Perhaps anybody could have done it, but I have had the patience to get it really sharp. I have been involved in developing the methods used to take and prepare the samples, the way to use the microscopes and how to colour the pictures. It has been a golden opportunity for me to combine my technical and medical skills.  

What do you do in your spare time?  

I spend a lot of time with my wife and two children – Rasmus who is eight, and Milla who is two years old. Before they were born, I did a lot of climbing and diving, but now I don't have so much time for those kinds of pursuits. I do, however, find the time to go running and swimming. I never learned the crawl stroke as a child, so that is something I want to do now. I like setting myself tasks like that, but I also want to have time for my children and for drinking red wine with friends, so I don't go overboard, and it must be fun. I also brew beer, and in fact none of it has ever gone bad. You know, I just love mixing things together.