Outsmarting Superbugs, Biology's 'Bad Pennies'

Outsmarting Superbugs, Biology's 'Bad Pennies'

Learn more about Jeff Gore.
Jeff Gore,
2011 Pew Biomedical Scholar 

Pew biomedical scholar Jeff Gore spends most of his time trying to figure out how bacteria develop resistance to antibiotics, targeting the “superbugs” that threaten human health and the advances of the antibiotic era. But in his spare time, he has another target in his sights: the lowly U.S. penny.

Gore, the recipient of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Pappalardo Fellowship in Physics, is also the founder of Citizens to Retire the U.S. Penny. He has proved that the cost to produce each penny is more than the coin is worth, and he even appeared on Comedy Central's “The Colbert Report” to advocate for an end to penny production.

Deftly deflecting the famously funny Stephen Colbert's protests, Gore explained how he drew data from diverse disciplines, including the history of U.S. currency and a workflow analysis he used to calculate the average time it takes to pay with pennies.

Now an assistant professor at MIT, Gore applies his multidisciplinary mindset to issues of considerably more weight than a red cent. His fields of study—which include evolutionary dynamics, systems biology, and quantitative ecology—involve complex systems whose components interact and evolve as they respond to environmental conditions.

Gore's interests didn't always include the study of life. Until he was in graduate school, he considered the memorization required to study biology “soul-deadening.” But as he pursued his doctorate in physics from the University of California, Berkeley, Gore saw a place for his brand of thinking in the study of intricate biological systems.

"I realized there were a lot of beautiful questions to ask."
Learn more about Jeff Gore.

Jeff Gore studies how bacteria develop resistance to antibiotics.

“I realized there were a lot of beautiful questions to ask,” he says. Fueling that curiosity were several scientific mentors who validated Gore's inquisitiveness and intelligence, lending him the confidence to ask big questions.

A voracious reader, Gore was particularly influenced by Richard Dawkins' The Selfish Gene, which applies game theory—analyzing how the actions of players affect what others can do and the range of possible outcomes—to the evolutionary process.

As one of the 22 early-career scientists who were named Pew scholars in 2011, Gore has undertaken his own investigation of the intersection of game theory and evolution. His goal: to understand how bacteria develop resistance to antibiotics.

Scientists fear that if current trends continue, the increase of antibiotic-resistant bacteria could lead to a post-antibiotic era in which these medicines no longer work. Even common infections would then be able to kill as they did before the emergence of the class of drugs in the 1930s and 1940s.

Gore studies how the “game moves” of genetic mutations and environmental changes affect bacterial systems' resistance to antibiotic agents. Among the complex phenomena he has observed is cooperation among millions of bacterial cells as they chemically break down and disarm antibiotic molecules.

He has also noticed the presence of “cheaters”—bacterial cells that benefit from their brethren's innovation of resistance even though they don't have the necessary mutation themselves. “This leads to a decrease in resistance for the entire population,” Gore notes.

Such fundamental findings could unveil bacteria's evolutionary dynamics, possibly pointing the way toward tactics to stave off antibiotic resistance. “I would love if something I did was actually useful,” he says.

Yet he feels strongly that curiosity should drive research. “That is how we will come across new things that change the way we think,” he says.

Scientific thought leaders seem to believe that Gore's creative approach will be of use. In February 2013, he was awarded the Paul Allen Distinguished Investigators Award to Unlock Fundamental Questions in Biology. Shortly thereafter, he won a research grant from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, one of the 27 National Institutes of Health.

The award and grants to further his research total nearly $3 million, which means that the scientific community is willing to invest some 300,000,000 pennies for his thoughts.

Since 1985, Pew's biomedical programs have supported promising researchers in the health sciences, particularly young investigators with innovative approaches and ideas. This article is part of a series highlighting Pew's biomedical programs.