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John Harvard's Journal

Darren Higgins

March-April 2006

Remember the couple of hot dogs in your fridge that you appear to think are immortal? As the dogs lurk there for week after week, precooked and refrigerated though they are, they may grow Listeria monocytogenes. This food-borne pathogen can and does kill people at risk, although most of us toss off a touch of listeriosis with a bellyache, et cetera, and never become statistics. Darren Higgins, associate professor of microbiology and molecular genetics at the Medical School, heads a laboratory with 11 other researchers studying listeria. At first they examined how the bacterium attacks fruit-fly cells, but have now moved on to human cells. They have taken the pathbreaking approach of focusing on the cells, not the bug, to discover which of the cells’ genes admits the pathogen and lets it replicate. (The photograph behind Higgins, above, shows listeria entering cells.) If the cell doesn’t need that gene to function, the gene could be blocked, thwarting the pathogen. Physicians might thus be able in future to rely less on antibiotics to fight disease. Higgins, 39, was born on an Air Force base in Michigan, did his undergraduate work at Texas A&M, and earned a doctorate in microbiology and immunology from the University of Michigan in 1995. When he isn’t overseeing his lab, he likes to sit at a bench in it, doing what to the uninitiated appears to be moving small volumes of liquid from one tube to another, but which is more likely to be troubleshooting or testing new research approaches, and which he finds recreational. He runs and skis and is a movie buff—Blade Runner being his favorite. When Higgins eats hot dogs, he cooks them plenty.