JUSTL Participant: Dr Danny Ka Chun Fung
Dr Danny Ka Chun Fung is an Assistant Scientist in Dr Jade Wang’s laboratory in the Department of Bacteriology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (US). Dr Fung was awarded his PhD in 2010 in Professor Raphael Chan’s laboratory in the Department of Microbiology at The Chinese University of Hong Kong. His project focused on the phenomenon known as ‘antibiotic tolerance’ where antibiotic-susceptible bacteria become refractory to antibiotic treatment. Dr Fung told me that, “This is a long-standing but still poorly understood problem that causes relapse of bacterial infections despite modern antibiotic therapy.” Dr Fung’s research was involved in determining the physiological and genetic factors that cause antibiotic tolerance in Escherichia coli, which is a bacterium typically found in the lower intestine of warm-blooded animals. After completing his PhD, Dr Fung received post-doctoral training in Dr Aixin Yan’s laboratory in the School of Biological Science at The University of Hong Kong, during which time, he investigated two-component signaling systems in bacteria, and how they regulate the transport of small molecules such as metals and antibiotics.
Dr Fung began working in the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2015. He investigates stress-induced second messengers, called alarmones, in bacteria. Alarmones are found throughout the bacterial kingdom and are frequently essential to stress tolerance and pathogenesis. Dr Fung is studying the role of (p)ppGpp, a highly conserved alarmone, on antibiotic tolerance and persistence in bacteria, and has demonstrated that it is responsible for multiple pathways that cause bacteria to become highly refractory to antibiotic treatment. In addition, as (p)ppGpp signaling only exists in bacteria and in plant chloroplasts, but not in animals, it is considered to be an excellent target for the development of the next generation of antibiotics.
Dr Fung was a participant in the 2008 JUSTL programme. His mentor was Dr Fred Chang (now at University of California San Francisco), and his research project involved using confocal microscopy to visualise the actin and tubulin components of the cytoskeleton in quiescent yeast cells. Dr Fung recalls that, “It was a formidable challenge for both of us. I work on bacterial quiescence in Hong Kong but know very little about yeast physiology. On the other hand, Fred is an expert on the yeast cell cycle but not so much on non-dividing or quiescent cells. Fortunately, this interesting combination worked much better than either of us expected.”
Before applying for the JUSTL programme, Dr Fung was concerned that the MBL might not be the right place for a microbiologist to work. He was interested in bacterial physiology whereas the MBL was (and is) most well-known for the research conducted on marine organisms. He was happy to find that he was worrying needlessly as he found that, “the MBL is such as unique place, as any biologist, regardless of his or her research area, can gain invaluable research experience that few other places can offer.”
In addition to his research project, Dr Fung attended the Microbial Diversity course lectures. In his end-of-programme report, he said that, “For anyone with research interest in microbiology, this is the course to attend. Most of the lectures were given by world experts in their specific area, and many are the best microbiologists of our time. I’ve learned a lot from these lectures, not only on the knowledge in very specific areas of microbiology but most importantly they enabled me to develop a deep sense of appreciation to the beauty and complexity of the microbial world from a much broader perspective, which I think is a basic requirement of any up-and-coming microbiologist.” Indeed, it was following the Microbial Diversity course that Dr Fung became especially interested in bacteriology, and this is the field he is working in today.
When I asked Dr Fung if participating in the JUSTL programme helped to shape his career, he told me that during his time at the MBL, he was debating whether he should continue doing research after his PhD. “The programme made me realise my interest in research, which in the end inspired me to go for an academic research career.”