Faculty Mentor: Shaun Lee, PhD

Author: Notre Dame ESTEEM

ESTEEM student James Hodgens spends his time in the laboratory of Shaun Lee, an assistant professor in Biological Sciences, looking for beneficial bacteria in mung bean sprouts. Outside the laboratory, he conducts interviews and contacts pharmaceutical companies to gauge the market for using such kinds of bacteria for food supply protection and antibiotics.

Professor Shaun Lee, PhD

“We discovered that bacteria are present inside the seeds of certain plants like mung bean sprouts,” Lee says, adding that researchers have identified the three gene clusters in the plant that generate potential novel antibiotics. “It’s essentially probiotics for the plant. Probiotics and commensals are now being appreciated as a rich source of potential antimicrobial compounds." James’s ESTEEM project for this year is to better understand what the applications and/or the products might be.

“James is performing molecular studies to clone and purify the antimicrobial peptides in vitro in the lab so that we may have a purified compound to test. From a business aspect, he’s trying to understand what the market would be for using these kinds of bacteria or their antimicrobial products. Can we apply this to foodstuff, to keep the pathogenic microbes from contaminating our food supply in a natural manner?” The discovery might also help fight disease-causing bacteria that have evolved resistance to other antibiotics.

Hodgens’ laboratory work is important to the project, and his outside work could help move the discovery to commercial application, says Lee, who has worked with two earlier ESTEEM students.

“I like that [ESTEEM students] are in the lab quite extensively to push these projects along,” he says. “Now we have compounds that are pretty good candidates. We had never gotten to a stage where we could think of commercializing the product. I depend on the ESTEEM students to find out what the market is, what people are interested in, and educate me in the end.”