In Conversation with Lister Fellow Dr Tim Blower

Dr Tim Blower became a Lister Prize Fellow in 2019. We caught up with him to talk about what the Fellowship meant to him and to find out how he’s using the funding to expand research in his lab.

“Before I started at Durham University in 2015, I was awarded an EMBO Fellowship to join Prof James Berger’s lab in the US to study topoisomerases, which allowed me to further develop my skills in structural biology,” says Tim.“Upon setting up my own lab I knew I wanted to return to the bacteriophage biology I’d started investigating during my PhD.”

His lab’s research focuses on the ways in which bacteria protect themselves from bacteriophages (phages), looking at a range of systems, including the newly identified Bacteriophage Exclusion (BREX) phage-resistance system.

“My pitch to the Lister Prize panel was that we knew this system stops phages and we knew it’s something to do with methylation of DNA, but it’s more complex than restriction-modification,” explains Tim. “It’s worth exploring these interactions between phage and bacteria because historically they’ve produced so many useful tools, such as restriction enzymes and CRISPR-Cas. Who knows what we will uncover!”

Tim has used the funding to hire a postdoctoral researcher for three years. She is currently cataloguing and sequencing bacteriophages that Durham undergraduates have been isolating from the waterways around the university.

“The undergrads isolate the phages, visualise them by electron microscopy, and they get to name them,” laughs Tim. “So, we’ve got Phage Against the Machine, Phage and Onion Stuffing… all kinds of names!”

They are hoping to identify what it is about the phages that makes them susceptible or resistant to bacterial defence mechanisms, as that will give them clues as to how the mechanisms work.

He has also been able to retain his first PhD student as a post-doc for an extra year, to help continue the BREX work.

We wish Tim and his team all the best for their ongoing research.

You can find out more about Tim’s work on the lab’s website.

Read more about Tim’s personal journey to winning the Lister Prize on our What it meant to me page.