Mycoplasmas are among the smallest, simplest known prokaryotes and are thought to approach the minimal requirements for a self-replicating existence. Mycoplasmas are characterized by a very small genome, the complete lack of a cell wall, and very limited biosynthetic capabilities. My research interests focus primarily on the molecular and cell biology of Mycoplasma pneumoniae, which causes bronchitis and "walking" pneumonia. M. pneumoniae is responsible for about 20% of all pneumonias and is the leading cause of pneumonia in older children and young adults.
Our research concentrates on the interaction of the mycoplasmas with the respiratory epithelium. Mycoplasma adherence is mediated by a complex, polar, differentiated structure – the terminal organelle. This structure is also the leading end as the mycoplasma cells move by gliding motility, and its duplication precedes cell division. A major goal of our research is to define the organization, assembly and regulation of the terminal organelle. We manipulate the mycoplasma genome by transposon mutagenesis and by genetic complementation, while the use of fluorescent protein fusions allows us to examine in real time the events in assembly of the terminal organelle and the coordination of this process with cell division. Through mutant analysis and imaging techniques we are also exploring the mechanism of gliding motility. Finally, using a differentiated human bronchial epithelial model system we are defining the role of gliding motility in M. pneumoniae colonization of the respiratory mucosa.