A UC Merced graduate student will make his way to Brazil this spring to continue his research work on oral bacteria.
Larry Johnson, a quantitative and systems biology student, was recently awarded a fellowship from the Brazilian government to spend one year doing lab work in Rio de Janeiro.
Johnson’s work focuses on oral infection and inflammation. In Brazil, he will take a closer look at Fusobacterium nucleatum, a bacterium known to play a role in gum disease. Johnson explained that the bacterium contributes to biofilms. For example, plaque that forms on teeth and causes tooth decay is a type of biofilm.
Fusobacterium nucleatum is one of the least studied oral pathogens, Johnson said. He’s interested in finding out how these specific microorganisms start inflammation, specifically chronic, or low-level, inflammation.
Johnson’s fellowship opportunity was made possible in part by a 10-year partnership between Brazilian research centers and David Ojcius, a molecular biology professor at UC Merced. Ojcius encouraged Johnson to submit a research proposal for the fellowship program last fall.
“I’ve always been interested in studying in different labs and diversifying my background,” Johnson said. “Dr. Ojcius brought up this opportunity … fortunately, the federal government of Brazil also thought this project would be worthwhile.”
Ojcius explained that the Brazilian government sponsors a scholarship program known as Science Without Borders. In the past, the program has sponsored students from Brazil to study at UC Merced, but this is the first time a UC Merced student will travel to Brazil on behalf of the fellowship.
According to Ojcius, who has traveled to the South American country on several occasions to collaborate with researchers, there’s a great interest by the Brazilian government to fund this type of work.
“There are some good labs there; the quality of the scientific research in Brazil has been improving very quickly,” Ojcius said. “For them, immunology is important, because they also have a lot of tropical diseases.”
Ojcius explained that in UC Merced’s research labs, they are able to study the molecular and cell biology of inflammation, but in the laboratories in Brazil, Johnson will be able to conduct studies with lab mice.
Research in this area is becoming more relevant than ever, Ojcius said, as evidence increasingly suggests a relationship between oral bacteria and inflammation in the mouth, and chronic disease.
“There’s growing evidence that bacteria affect not only the health of the mouth – some people think about the obvious connections between gum disease and tooth loss – but there’s also a clear connection between the presence of some of this bacteria and heart disease,” Ojcius said.
Now the question researchers are asking themselves is whether the presence of the bacteria causes chronic disease, or does chronic disease cause the formation of the bacteria?
Johnson’s trip to Brazil will also benefit UC Merced’s research lab, as data from other labs enhances local work, Ojcius said.
In the long run, researchers hope that collaboration between labs worldwide will contribute to better understanding of the connection between periodontal disease and chronic disease.
Sun-Star staff writer Ana B. Ibarra can be reached at (209) 385-2486 or firstname.lastname@example.org.