Plague research wins award for CSU graduate student

David Markman, CSU Ph.D. Candidate Researching Plague BacteriaFundamental questions about one of history’s deadliest diseases, plague, still remain unanswered. And David Markman, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Biology at Colorado State University, is working to answer some of those questions.

For his work in this area, Markman won a Young Investigator Award at the 2017 annual meeting of the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene (ASTMH) in Baltimore, Maryland. The award recognized Markman’s research on Yersinia pestis, the bacteria that causes plague – the same disease responsible for pandemics known as the “Black Death” during the Middle Ages.

Markman’s research, which he presented at the conference, showed how single-celled amoebae can incubate and protect plague bacteria. His work may help answer one of the longest-standing questions about plague: where it goes between outbreaks. The answer to this question has long evaded researchers, but Markman decided to jump in.

“I thought, well, let’s try and tackle the big question,” he said.

Pesky pathogens

Markman’s work is part of a larger research effort funded by CSU’s One Health Initiative and a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) seed grant. The grants supported work by Markman and other researchers studying how diseases like plague, bovine tuberculosis, and melioidosis interact with amoebae that commonly live in soil and water. Markman said that normally, bacteria eaten by amoebae are destroyed.

“However, there’s a growing catalog of bacteria that are found to be resistant to being digested by these amoebae,” he said.

If plague or other pathogens can survive and multiply inside an amoeba, there is potential for them to be turned into a biological weapon, Markman said. Part of his research is focused on whether this is possible – and if so, future research will focus on how to stop it.

“These are all questions that would impact national defense, bio-defense, and that would have implications for conservation and human health,” he said.

Applied research

As an undergrad majoring in conservation biology and biodiversity at the University of Maryland, Markman conducted research on West Nile virus and realized that he enjoyed working on infectious diseases. After graduating in 2011, he worked as a biologist at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research to develop vaccines for malaria and dengue virus.

Realizing he would need an advanced degree to move up in the field, in 2014 he moved to Fort Collins to pursue a doctorate at CSU. After Markman graduates with a Ph.D. in biology, he aims to get a job in bio-defense or management consulting, where he hopes to be able to influence the direction of research so it can be more effectively applied to help people.

“Combining science and business in an ethical and responsible way is something that really appeals to me,” he said.

Markman’s plague research will also be featured in an upcoming paper in the journal, Emerging Infectious Diseases.