I started exploring caves at 14. They can reveal a totally new world. To be the first person to experience them is spectacular. There’s no instrumentation that can map caves; there’s no real ground-penetrating radar that can do it and no GPS, so there’s no way of knowing what’s there without physically going in.
A lot of my research focuses on exploring caves to find microbes that could help us understand the evolution of antibiotic resistance – the great arms race. By overusing antibiotics, we’ve selected for microbes that naturally carry the genes to be resistant and amplified these resistance genes throughout the microbial species that make us sick. If we can break this cycle, we can reduce the threat.
Communities of cave microbes have been isolated from human influence. By exploring the genetics of these pristine cave microbes that haven’t been exposed to man-made antibiotics, we can see whether antibiotic resistance evolved before we started using them for medicine. We can essentially go back in time to examine a microbial world free of human influence.
Studying these microbes gives us the opportunity to discover novel antibiotic-resistance mechanisms that haven’t become a problem yet. If we can identify what these look like, we can come up with ways of preventing these forms of resistance from making it difficult to treat infections in the future.
In the nutrient-limited conditions of caves, microbial communities have a much higher level of diversity to scavenge nutrients efficiently. Because of this, it increases the chances of finding a novel microbe that produces a novel antibiotic. In a recent study, we screened 90 bacteria and found a novel antibiotic, although structurally it was too similar to something else to be useful. The problem is that no-one is finding new structures, and no-one has found anything new since 1993. Part of the problem is that there are no incentives to find new antibiotics. We have a market-driven approach to a fundamental problem, which is similar to climate change: they are both existential crises that we’re not dealing with because market forces aren’t driving solutions.
I’m hoping Covid-19 will be a wake-up call. This is the fourth SARS-like virus that’s emerged since 2003. Us microbiologists have been flinging our hands in the air saying ‘we need to be prepared for this’, and few took notice. The current situation is just a precursor for where we’re going to be in 20 years with bacterial infections.
I’ve been trapped in caves before by floods and I’ve lost friends to injury. This gives you a very different perspective in seeing the significant things in life. Often in science there’s a fear of failure. My lab has made mistakes and wasted resources, but these failures are an important part of the process: they’ve told us something we weren’t expecting.
When I was a young female caver, there were very few senior female cavers around. There was one who often rejected me when I approached her for advice, which was confusing, as caving is a very machismo pastime – I was often asked if I visited caves because of a boyfriend. So I was excited that there was this great female role model. I remember how I felt when someone that I looked up to smacked me down for being nothing other than keen and excited.
Ever since, I’ve really made an effort to lift people up. I’ve now had five post-docs and they’ve all gone on to really great careers. I just try to remind myself that there’s lots of space for everybody to succeed. It’s about recognising talent, helping people to make the most of opportunities and even putting opportunities in their path.