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Fighting Staph, Protecting Food Supplies

By Josh Halpren

Jeffrey Kaplan

For Jeffrey Kaplan, American University is the next step. The new associate professor of biology joins the College after over a decade researching and teaching at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (UMDNJ) eager to explore new ventures in both research and teaching.

“When my son went off to college, I saw it as an opportunity to start something new,” says Kaplan. “AU’s location makes it ideal for collaboration with other research institutions like the National Institutes of Health, the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, and other outstanding universities in the D.C. area.”

Up till now, Kaplan’s research has largely focused on bacterial biofilms, the thin, slimy layers of bacteria that grow on surfaces exposed to liquid. One of these surfaces is a tooth. Kaplan has spent years studying oral bacteria to understand how they stick to surfaces. “This research has helped us discover a wide range of novel methods for treating and preventing bacterial infections of humans, plants, and animals,” he says.

But while still interested in understanding bacterial infections, Kaplan says his move to AU opens a new door. Kaplan recently received grants from the National Institutes of Health and the Department of Defense to research one of the most deadly bacterial infections — Staphylococcus aureus — commonly known as staph. “Staph infections kill more people annually than HIV/AIDS,” says Kaplan. “It is oftentimes spread in hospitals, and antibiotic-resistant variants make it particularly difficult to treat.”

Kaplan’s goal is to understand how bacteria can colonize, spread and cause infection, and to discover the best methods for preventing and treating these infections.

Kaplan has also begun to look at bacterial infections of plants and the use of antibiotics on farms. “Bacterial infections can significantly reduce crop yields,” says Kaplan. “This can have a catastrophic effect on societies that depend on these crops for sustenance.”

Working with groups in Kenya and India, Kaplan endeavors to help develop crops that can better resist infection without the use of antibiotics in an attempt to make these crops more sustainable. Similarly, farm use of antibiotics can have devastating effects.

“Antibiotics are fantastic drugs but they are overused,” he says. “Eighty percent of all antibiotics are given to farm animals. Bacteria begin to build up resistances to the antibiotics.” The antibiotics fed to pigs on farms, for example, may be responsible for the emergence of certain highly resistant strains of staph that infect humans.

Kaplan’s move to AU has also allowed him to serve as director of AU’s newly created Center for Food and Health. “There are many faculty across the university who carry out research relating to food and food-related issues,” says Kaplan. “Among the College, the School of International Service, the School of Public Affairs, the Kogod School of Business, and the School of Communication there are many individuals doing research on everything from hunger and food-access issues to obesity, food marketing, and other public health issues.”

Kaplan thinks that by bringing these scholars together, the Center will be able to identify and coordinate increased interdisciplinary collaboration and seek additional outside sources of funding.

“Food is a central component of human society,” says Kaplan. “The transition from hunter-gatherer to agricultural societies fostered the emergence of language and the beginning of civilization. Everyone consumes food every single day, and food has served as a key component in the evolution of human society.”

With his first opportunity to spend significant time with undergraduate students, Kaplan hopes being at AU will allow him to demonstrate the benefits of a career in scientific research. “At UMDNJ, I was able to help inform the work of many students who already knew the direction they were headed in,” says Kaplan. “I hope that by working with undergraduates I can share my passion for research and help students see scientific research as the fascinating field that it is.”