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Lab Chat With Dr. Michael Berney

Michael Berney, Ph.D., is a microbiologist who studies Mycobacterium tuberculosis (Mtb), the microbe that causes TB. Dr. Berney was born in Switzerland, where he studied environmental sciences and microbiology at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, which was also Albert Einstein’s alma mater. After completing a postdoctoral fellowship in bacterial bioenergetics in New Zealand, he came to Einstein to collaborate with TB pioneer William Jacobs, Ph.D. Dr. Berney joined the Einstein faculty in 2016, where he is an assistant professor of microbiology & immunology.

 

How did you become interested in microbiology?

During my education in Switzerland, I was a visiting student in environmental sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and we studied a polluted lake outside Boston. Industrial toxic chemicals were leaking in but, oddly, toxins weren’t flowing out. We learned that bacteria, and not some inorganic process, were degrading the chemicals. That opened my eyes to the importance of microbes in shaping the environment.

Why did you become a TB researcher?

I was looking for a postdoc where I could dive into a bacterium that matters to human health and found a position at the University of Otago in New Zealand with Gregory Cook, an expert in mycobacterial bioenergetics.

And what led you to Einstein?

A paper we published in 2010 caught Dr. Jacobs’s eye, and we started to talk about possible collaborations. Two years later, I asked Dr. Jacobs if I could work in his lab. I didn’t anticipate that I’d end up on the faculty. But that’s what you get with a scientific career. It takes you to unexpected places, and if you work hard and stay focused you can end up in a great place to do science.

For TB researchers, what is special about Einstein?

We have world-class infrastructure for TB research and various groups studying TB from every angle, from bacteriology to immunology to clinical epidemiology. You get to learn about so many aspects of the disease.

Michael Berney, Ph.D.

What are you studying now?

We’ve uncovered vulnerable components of Mtb metabolism: the aspartate pathway and the respiratory chain. In papers published in 2019 in Nature Communications and in 2017 in PNAS, we wrote about finding ways to eradicate Mtb persisters—the bacteria that resist conventional treatment. We’re now testing combinations of existing and novel enzyme inhibitors in vitro and in animal models.

Is there anything about you that people would be surprised to know?

I was a ski instructor in Switzerland and then in New Zealand during my days at university.

Do you have any hobbies?

I have three children, ages 7, 9, and 11. They keep me very busy. But when I have time, I love running, biking, and skiing.

Have you read anything interesting lately?

Currently, I am reading The ONE Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results [by Gary W. Keller and Jay Papasan].  I also like to read biographies of great scientists, such as Albert Einstein and Craig Venter. And I just read The Remedy [by Thomas Goetz], about the quest to cure TB.

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