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Fatima El Arnouki Belhaji wins this year's Award for Best Master Student in Biochemistry

Fatima El Arnouki Belhaji

Together with our friends from the alumni society Chemici Leuven, PDL has awarded the Prize for Best Master Student in Biochemistry and Biotechnology to Fatima El Arnouki Belhaji (left). Congratulations, Fatima! Below, Fatima describes the research she perfomed during her master's year.


Antibiotic resistance is a global health threat that is unfortunately part of both our present and future. This problem, along with the lack of new antibiotics in the last few decades, is resulting in extremely dangerous infections for which no or very few treatments are effective. Without appropriate action, millions of lives could be lost every year due to the growing threat of antibiotic resistance. Therefore, finding new antibiotics is crucial, and for that, going back to the roots, to nature, might be the answer.

Microorganisms, such as bacteria, have evolved in extremely competitive environments in which making compounds with antibiotic properties (amongst others) is essential for their survival. Many of them live in association with other organisms, like plants, in what is known as a symbiotic relationship. This way, the bacteria release molecules that are essential for the plant’s growth and survival, while the plant contributes to the proliferation of certain bacterial species. Recent studies have shown that there are many plant-associated bacteria that are able to produce many compounds which are yet to be characterized, which can exhibit new antibiotic activities.

Therefore, in this work, we aimed to characterize a number of underexplored plant-associated bacteria. By looking into their DNA with bioinformatic tools, we found a group of unknown genes clustered together that show potential of producing metabolites with interesting bioactivities. As a result, in this thesi,s we aimed to study this unknown region, to see what type of molecule it is eventually responsible for producing. To do so, we targeted the genes of interest by inserting a vector, a piece of DNA, that disrupts the continuity of these DNA sequences.

Once we had some of these variants, or mutants, alongside the ‘unmodified’ bacteria, we carried out a number of assays in which we tested if any of these could inhibit the growth of antibiotic-resistant pathogens known as the ESKAPE pathogens (Figure 1). That was the case for some of the studied species, with the results showing preliminary evidence of the role of the targeted genes in the observed bioactivities.

Figure 1. Assay in which the bioactivity of one targeted species against the ESKAPE pathogen Staphylococcus aureus is tested. The presence of a halo indicates that an effective antibiotic is produced by the spotted bacteria. Different gene mutations lead to smaller growth inhibition halos hinting towards the participation of the genes in the antibiotic production.

Finally, we used chromatographic techniques to compare the production of compounds by unmodified and mutated bacteria. This way, we aimed to observe a clear signal present in the original species and absent in the mutant that could be traced back to the molecule the unknown clustered genes are responsible for producing. This was the case for one of the species, while for the rest further work will be carried out.

Fatima El Arnouki Belhaji

Fatima's prijs werd overhandigd door prof. Luc Van Meervelt.


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