Developing technologies to destroy harmful microbes in the field

From moldy fruit to Salmonella, microbial pathogens provide a great challenge for food waste, quality and safety.  By targeting biofilms and the cell walls of microbes, Dr. Bryan Berger is developing special proteins to remove these harmful pathogens that cause illness and create waste. View Halo Profile >>

Tell us about your research

Our lab designs biological solutions to address challenges in health, agriculture, environmental science and industrial biotechnology. We’re a diverse group of engineers, biologists and chemists, which is important in developing and commercializing unique solutions to these challenges. With the Bayer Grants4AG award, we will pursue design of proteins that target microbial polysaccharides, and use them to remove microbial pathogens such as Salmonella, Aspergillus and Botrytis in pre- and post-harvest agriculture applications. Polysaccharides play a key role in microbial cell wall structure and biofilm, both of which contribute to how microbes survive on biotic and abiotic surfaces to cause both human illness and crop loss.

With the Bayer Grants4AG award, we will pursue design of proteins that target microbial polysaccharides, and use them to remove microbial pathogens such as Salmonella, Aspergillus and Botrytis in pre- and post-harvest agriculture applications.


Can you explain that to a non-scientist?

There are lots of everyday examples where one experiences the effects of microbial contamination, such as when you leave berries in your refrigerator for too long and they develop a grey, fuzzy mold. We are developing technologies that eliminate this in the field before it ends up in your fridge. Similarly, the slime you find in your humidifier that is hard to get rid of is an example of biofilm we can remove using our approach. By using examples from nature of how microbial systems modify an interface, we can design systems that remove the biofilms or microbes themselves.

By using examples from nature of how microbial systems modify an interface, we can design systems that remove the biofilms or microbes themselves.

Why did you choose this area of research?

I’m fascinated by how microbial systems interact with and adapt to their local environment. We can learn so much from the chemistry of molecules microbes produce at a specific interface and use this knowledge to develop better solutions to challenges in agriculture.

I became interested in agriculture talking with local winemakers and industrial hemp growers in central Virginia, where I learned both of these groups suffered from similar problems in terms of crop loss due to fungal contamination. Furthermore, both groups were looking for new, environmentally sustainable solutions to improve the quality and value of the harvest crop. This overlapped with much of the ongoing work in my lab at University of Virginia, and led to several interesting collaborations, new research directions and start-ups spun out of my lab including Lytos Technologies. 


How could your Grants4Ag project someday impact #healthforall #hungerfornone?

I see the biotechnologies we are developing as having the potential to increase crop yield and value due to their environmentally-friendly approach, which could help farmers increase their return and reduce the amount of resources necessary to grow. These approaches can extend product shelf-life as well, reducing the amount of food waste. Importantly, we can also remove pathogens present in food products, which will ensure a safe food supply for all. We’re excited to work with Bayer to learn more about how our ideas can contribute to solving these problems.