Of Microbes and Men


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Dr. Rotem Sorek. revealing natrual antibioticsDr. Rotem Sorek, who recently joined the Weizmann Institute’s Molecular Genetics Department, believes humans have a great deal to learn from microbes: These microscopic creatures have inhabited our planet for twice as long as the more advanced organisms – fungi, plants and animals, including humans – and are exceptionally good at adapting themselves to new surroundings.

Sorek suggests that by revealing the microbes’ secrets, scientists can discover entirely new biological systems and learn to turn various microbial strategies to human advantage – vital research in light of the upsurge in antibiotic-resistant diseases.

One possible way of countering microbial drug resistance could rely on “natural antibiotics” – proteins naturally produced by bacteria in order to kill other microorganisms. During his postdoctoral studies at the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab in California, Sorek invented an ingenious method for rapidly discovering hundreds of such killer proteins. By doing so, he turned an information gap – one previously considered a nuisance – into a research goldmine.

In order to decipher microbial genomes, scientists first break up their DNA into manageable segments. They then insert these segments into a strain of E. coli – a type of bacteria used as a standard research tool – in order to duplicate them; the different segments are then assembled to “read out” the full genome. Puzzlingly, this process always leaves gaps in the genome. Sorek, however, realized that the gaps occurred because certain DNA segments contain genes that could kill bacteria, and these genes destroyed the E. coli in which they were supposed to be duplicated. He designed a computational method to “read” the missing DNA segments and with them, the killer genes.

In his new lab, Sorek further develops and applies his method. In one project, he investigates a system that bacteria use to defend themselves against viruses. An improved understanding of this system could help devise effective means of protecting industrially beneficial bacteria, such as those in yogurt, against viral attack. Sorek also studies the possibility of reversing the activity of this bacterial "immune" system, causing harmful bacteria to self-destruct.

Sorek's research could lead to the design of more precise DNA chips for genetic studies, reveal how bacteria evolve and clarify how the activity of their genes is controlled – advances that, in turn, could enable researchers to manipulate bacterial genomes for the benefit of humans. 

Patent Success

Born in Tel Aviv, Israel, in 1975, Dr. Sorek pursued his undergraduate and graduate studies at Tel Aviv University. During this period he worked for five years at Compugen, Ltd., a leading Israeli biotechnical firm. After conducting postdoctoral research in the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, he joined the Weizmann Institute faculty as a senior scientist in 2008. He is a co-holder of nine patent applications and has received numerous honors, including the 2008 Sir Charles Clore Prize. His wife, Zohar, earned her Ph.D. at the Weizmann Institute under the guidance of Prof. Jacob Anglister and now conducts postdoctoral research in his lab. The couple live in Rehovot with their four-year-old son Uri. Sorek’s hobbies include windsurfing and mountain biking.

Dr. Rotem Sorek's research is supported by the Y. Leon Benoziyo Institute for Molecular Medicine; and the Sir Charles Clore Research Prize.