New CALS faculty member JP Van Pijkeren studies bacteria-host interactions


JP Van Pijkeren  joined the faculty in the Department of Food Science as an assistant professor in July.

Briefly describe your career path—up to this point.
I grew up on a farm in the Netherlands, and at an early age I developed an interest in becoming a veterinarian. I had started the BS degree in Biotechnology with the aim to get myself the winning ticket for admission to vet school (in the Netherlands a lottery decides whether students can be admitted, and finishing the first year of a BS degree would increase my chances). After starting the Biotechnology degree, my interests soon shifted though, and I wanted to know more about microbes, DNA and genetic engineering. After graduating it was obvious I wanted to continue my graduate studies and I obtained a MS degree in Microbiology from Leiden University. This included a one year work placement in New Zealand where I got introduced to lactic acid bacteria genetics.  Under the supervision of Dr Paul O’Toole I advanced to a PhD degree at University College Cork (Ireland) where I studied a subset of surface proteins of the lactic acid bacterium Lactobacillus salivarius. Since then I have not left the field of Gram-positive genetics (mainly lactic acid bacteria) during two post-doctoral trainings that followed: one year at Cork Cancer Research Center and 4.5 years at Michigan State University. At Michigan State I established in Dr Robert Brittons laboratory a technology called ‘ssDNA recombineering’ in a range of lactic acid bacteria. This allows introduction of subtle base changes in the genome without the need for antibiotic selection, and opens up the possibility to study gene function in an efficient manner.

What is the main focus of your research program?
My research focuses on gaining a better understanding how intestinal bacteria interact with their host. To this end we will use a human microbiome library to identify isolates that may impact human health, including prevention of infection. For example, the library will be used to identify microbiome isolates which can prevent/reduce infection by foodborne micro-organisms, like Listeria monocytogenes and Salmonella enterica.  We will also focus on the impact of the human microbiome on cell physiology using a wide variety of assays. Furthermore, as a model organism to study bacterium-host interactions we use the human isolate Lactobacillus reuteri for which we have a secretome mutant library available.

The knowledge gained from studying bacterium-host interactions complements a second area of interest which is the design and development of lactic acid bacteria to prevent/treat acute and chronic human diseases, including cardiovascular disease.

What drew you to UW-Madison?
Clearly, UW-Madison has a great reputation when it comes to Food Science and Microbiology. After talking to various people who studied and work(ed) at UW-Madison, it was obvious there is a strong collaborative spirit on campus (which I have already experienced since joining!). This, combined with the lifestyle Madison has to offer, makes me excited to be part of this University.

What do you like to do outside of work?
I enjoy macro-photography (mainly insects), tennis and cooking.