Bergmann Award winners focus on societal development, bacteria dangers

Two teams of Israeli and American researchers – one pair with eyes on ancient civilization, and the other on taming a modern-day infectious bacterium – are the latest winners of BSF’s Bergmann Memorial Award.

The honor is named in memory of Prof. E.D. Bergmann, who played a leading role in establishing BSF. Reflecting Bergmann’s interest in encouraging and assisting young scientists, the award is given annually to young scientists who are recipients of new BSF grants. Winners receive a $5,000 grant, in addition to their already-awarded BSF grant.

This year’s winners are: Dr. Hila May of Tel Aviv University, collaborating with Prof. David Reich of Harvard Medical School, and Dr. Yael Litvak of Hebrew University, partnering with Dr. Mariana Byndloss of Vanderbilt University. Congratulations to all of them.

Understanding how societies develop

Dr. Hila May
Prof. David Reich

To understand more about how societies develop, May and Reich are looking toward the past – as in 6,200-3,700 BCE. That is the time span of the Late Neolithic to Late Chalcolithic period in the Southern Levant (known today as the Middle East area including the Jordan Valley, the Sea of Galilee, the Jordan River and the Dead Sea.)

The Southern Levant has been intensively investigated by archaeologists. It is considered likely to be the first place that humans colonized outside of Africa. For archeologists like May and Reich, the area is fertile ground for studying major socio-economic and cultural changes that had a key role in shaping today’s modern society.

With their BSF-funded project, Life in the Late Neolithic-Chalcolithic Levant: Genetic and Anthropological Insight, May and Reich hope to probe some of the period’s most debated questions, such as: What was the origin of the Late Neolithic and Chalcolithic populations? Was there a continuity between these populations? What was their social structure?

The team hopes to find answers by using a whole genome ancient DNA (aDNA) analysis of these populations, together with an anthropological study. This will be the first large-scale aDNA study carried out on this crucial period. May said they will use their Bergmann Award funding for computational and software programs that will enhance their research.

May is a lecturer at Tel Aviv University’s Department of Anatomy and Anthropology. She studies ancient populations in order to reconstruct the daily lives of these groups. Reich is a genetics professor at Harvard, and one of the world’s top experts in the study of aDNA.

May and Reich have been working together for nearly five years. They have already carried out a successful pilot study on a sample of the late Chalcolithic period (4.500-3,800 cal BCE).

“This was the first large-scale aDNA study from Israel and it demonstrated the potential these interdisciplinary studies have in answering biological and cultural questions related to the Levantine populations,” May said.

How can the lessons of ancient populations help toward understanding today’s social and cultural issues? May said it all has to do with how humans have adapted and evolved.

“During millions of years of human evolution, the human body was designed in an optimal way for being a hunter and gatherer,” May said. “Over the last 15,000 years, major socio-economic developments, such as the Agricultural Revolution and the Secondary Product Revolution, resulted in a new environment that led to things like a more sedentary way of life, domestication of plants and animals, and consumption of dairy products. This exposed humans to new agents that mismatch our original design. The compromises for these mismatches are the development of new diseases and genetic adaptations that have lasted, and in some cases accelerated. Our study focuses in a key period for the understanding of these modern genetic diseases/adaptations as it examines the genetic composition of populations in a transitional period after the establishment of agriculture and the onset of consumption of dairy products.”

Probing the mysteries of a dangerous bacteria

Dr. Yael Litvak
Dr. Mariana Byndloss

For people with Shiga toxin-producing infections, the consequences are unpleasant at best – and fatal at worst. In many patients, the result is what is commonly known as E. coli, which can bring on severe (and often bloody) diarrhea, stomach cramps and vomiting. Some patients develop hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), a severe complication that involves kidney damage. In some cases, it can lead to permanent disability and even death.

Treatment for Shiga toxin-producing infections is limited. With their BSF-funded project, Dr. Yael Litvak of Hebrew University, and Dr. Mariana Byndloss of Vanderbilt University, hope to change that. They have already been honored with BSF’s Bergmann Award, given annually to young scientists receiving new BSF grants.

Their project, Molecular Mechanisms of Phagocyte-driven Virulence of Shiga Toxin-carrying Pathogens, is the first to systematically unravel molecular mechanisms by which Shiga-toxin-encoding bacterial viruses are activated in the large intestine.

The infections most often occur in humans when they eat products contaminated with the bacteria. Meat is a common culprit, since the bacteria live in the intestines of healthy cattle.

Litvak and Byndloss hope their project will demonstrate how specific host responses control the expression of bacterial genes and of virulence factors in the intestine. Virulence factors refer to properties (such as gene products) that enable a microorganism to establish itself on or within a host of a particular species and enhance its potential to cause disease.

This is expected to lead to the identification of potential new ways of alleviating disease symptoms and reducing the risk of developing HUS. Litvak and Byndloss’s project may also give rise to new treatments to combat these infections.

Litvak and Byndloss met when they both started post-doctoral positions at the University of California, Davis. Byndloss is a veterinarian pathologist who specializes in infectious disease. Litvak is a microbiologist skilled with bacterial genetics and knowledgeable about host-microbe interactions.

“We immediately discovered that our areas of professional expertise could complement each other if we worked together,” Litvak said.

They’ve been collaborating ever since, and their work has been published in several top-tier journals, including Science.

“We are very honored to have been recognized with this Bergmann Award, and we are looking forward to joining forces again and to unravel the molecular mechanisms by which Shiga-toxin-encoding bacterial viruses are activated,” Byndloss said.