New faculty profile: Charlie Mo studies interface between bacterial immunity and evolution

Charlie Mo joined the UW–Madison faculty in January 2023 as an assistant professor in the Department of Bacteriology.

What is your hometown? Where did you grow up?
It’s a bit complicated: I was born in Hefei, China, but I grew up in Cambridge, England, and Munich, Germany, before coming to the U.S. at the age of 15. My parents live in Amherst, Massachusetts, so I consider that my hometown.

What is your educational/professional background, including your previous position?
I received a bachelor’s in biochemistry from Swarthmore College and a Ph.D. in biochemistry and molecular biophysics from the University of Pennsylvania. I did my postdoctoral training at the Rockefeller University in New York.

How did you get into your field of research?
In graduate school I was first introduced to the idea that certain biochemical mechanisms can impact the evolution of cells (e.g. error-prone repair of DNA damage). Then during my postdoctoral fellowship, I became interested in how anti-phage defense systems – like CRISPR-Cas – impact the genetic variation in the host bacteria. Now with my own lab, I hope to study different aspects of this question in greater detail.

What are the main goals of your current research and outreach programs?
The ultimate goal of my research is to improve our understanding of how bacteria evolve when they are defending themselves against parasitic genetic elements. A bonus goal would be to leverage this knowledge to develop methods that can manipulate bacterial evolution, especially in the context of drug resistance.

What was your first visit to campus like?
It was during the winter, so it was cold! But the community on campus was the polar opposite: warm, welcoming, and very vibrant. I immediately felt that living and working in Madison would be a treat.

What’s one thing you hope students who take a class with you will come away with?
That science is fun, exciting, and relevant. And that anyone, regardless of their background, can engage with science.

Do you share your expertise and experiences with the public through social media? If so, which channels do you use?
I occasionally use Twitter (@CharlieMo8).

Do you feel your work relates in any way to the Wisconsin Idea? If so, please describe how.
In recent years, bacterial defense systems, such as CRISPR-Cas, have revolutionized our ability to manipulate cells. Although my work is basic science research, I would like to use the insights gathered to develop ways to improve human health and technology, especially in the realm of antibiotic resistance.

The pandemic forced us all to reconsider many things we took for granted. Is there something you’ve learned that has helped you through these challenging times, personally or professionally?
Be kind to one another and to oneself.

What’s something interesting about your area of expertise you can share that will make us sound smarter at parties?
Bacteria get attacked by viruses (bacteriophages) all the time. In fact, it is estimated the phages outnumber bacteria 10 to 1! As a result, bacteria have evolved many clever ways to defend themselves against these viral threats.

What are your hobbies and other interests?
I enjoy birding, playing tennis, and running. Also, having grown up in Europe, I love watching soccer.