Microbiologist Aims to Thwart Antibiotic Resistance

Dr. Kelli Palmer

Dr. Kelli Palmer

As a sophomore majoring in microbiology at the University of Oklahoma, Kelli Palmer washed dishes for a research lab.

Today, Dr. Kelli Palmer is running her own laboratory as an assistant professor of molecular and cell biology at The University of Texas at Dallas.

“It feels great,” said Palmer, who is supervising the research of several graduate students. Her work focuses on a better understanding of how bacteria develop resistance to antibiotics.

One approach she is taking involves sequencing entire genomes of different bacterial species to identify and characterize genetic mutations that lead to antibiotic resistance.

She also is investigating the role genetic material called plasmids and transposons play in conferring resistance. These tiny bits of DNA often encode antibiotic resistance genes, and they can be transferred from bacteria that are drug-resistant to bacteria that are not. Understanding this process might lead to more effective ways to curtail the spread of antibiotic resistance, Palmer said.

“We have 10 times as many bacterial cells in and on our bodies than we have of our own cells, plus we are exposed to new bacteria every day, so there is a transient population that introduces new plasmids and transposons,” she said. “There’s all kinds of contact and activity going on among these bacteria.”

Dr. Kelli Palmer

TITLE: Assistant professor

RESEARCH INTERESTS: Drug-resistant bacteria and bacterial genomics.

PREVIOUSLY: Postdoctoral Fellow, Harvard Medical School.

Palmer is studying a complex system abbreviated CRISPR, which refers to a type of bacterial immune system – something researchers didn’t know existed until about 10 years ago, she said.

“For a long time, researchers thought that bacteria had no way to acquire immunity to infections the way humans do,” Palmer said. “But in the past several years, we’ve found that the CRISPR system is involved with bacterial immunity.”

Dr. Stephen Spiro, head of the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology at UT Dallas, said the addition of Palmer and at least two more new faculty members later this year marks the beginning of “an exciting period of expansion for the department.”

“We were all thrilled when Kelli decided to join UT Dallas,” Spiro said. “Kelli comes with a mastery of cutting-edge techniques and interests in highly topical and fundable areas of microbiology.  She has really hit the ground running, and her enthusiasm for research and teaching will greatly benefit our students.”

After receiving her bachelor’s degree from the University of Oklahoma, Palmer earned a doctorate in molecular genetics and microbiology from the University of Texas in Austin. She was a postdoctoral fellow in ophthalmology and microbiology and immunology at Harvard Medical School before joining the UT Dallas faculty last fall.

“I grew up in Oklahoma, which is part of the reason I came to UT Dallas – it’s closer to home,” Palmer said. “The second reason is that this university is really growing, and it’s obvious, and I find that very exciting. I want to be a part of that.”

Media Contact: The Office of Media Relations, UT Dallas, (972) 883-2155, [email protected].