Edze Westra

2021 United Kingdom Award Finalist — Faculty

Edze Westra

Current Position:
Professor of Microbiology and NERC Independent Research Fellow

University of Exeter

Ecology & Evolutionary Microbiology

Recognized for: Discovering how environmental factors drive evolution of the bacterial immune system CRISPR in concert with bacteria-infecting viruses, or phages. A greater understanding of the evolution of the CRISPR immune system may aid in tackling the problem of anti-microbial resistance.

Edze Westra

Areas of Research Interest and Expertise: Evolutionary Biology, Gene Editing, Bacterial Immunity, Antimicrobial Resistance, Phage Biology

Previous Positions:

BSc, Wageningen University, Netherlands
MSc, Wageningen University, Netherlands
PhD, Wageningen University, Netherlands
Marie Curie Fellow, University of Exeter, UK

Research Summary:

Prof. Edze Westra’s work seeks to understand how selection pressures drive the evolution of bacterial defense strategies. Bacteria and bacteria-infecting viruses (known as phages) maintain a host-parasite relationship. When unobstructed, viruses infect bacteria and replicate until the bacteria is destroyed. Thus, bacteria have evolved a molecular immune response to fight infection—a mechanism that is key to their survival. Similarly, phages evolve to overcome bacterial immunity, resulting in a co-evolutionary arms race between the bacteria and phage. Using a combination of evolutionary theory, lab experiments, and genetic information, Westra studies the evolution of the adaptive bacterial immune system CRISPR-Cas, a dynamic group of proteins that aid bacteria in fighting off viruses. Westra first pioneered research into the detailed mechanism of CRISPR-Cas by demonstrating that a protein complex containing both CRISPR-associated proteins and virus-targeting genetic material is necessary for immunity function. Such findings were foundational for the field of CRISPR-associated gene-editing research, and he has since provided further studies of CRISPR-Cas regulation, high-resolution visualization of the CRISPR-Cas proteins, and identification of CRISPR-evading mutations within viruses. Further, Westra identified factors that determine whether or not the bacterial CRISPR-Cas system will be engaged in fighting viral infections, which has helped to resolve a long-standing discrepancy between nature- and lab-based studies. Westra’s work on interactions between bacteria and their parasites has provided key insight into methods for successfully predicting and manipulating evolution of CRISPR-Cas antiviral immunity and is indispensable to an understanding of antibiotic resistance, the development of novel antimicrobials, and bacteria-enabled biotechnology.

“Identifying new ways to deal with antimicrobial resistant pathogens is one of the most important challenges of our society. Bacteriophages can help us to treat infections caused by resistant and rapidly evolving bacterial pathogens. I expect this recognition from the Blavatnik Family Foundation for the work from my lab will boost further evolutionary research into bacteria-phage coevolution, and ultimately lead to new treatment strategies.”

Key Publications:

  1. S. van Houte, A.K. Ekroth, J.M. Broniewski, H. Chabas, B. Ashby, J. Bondy-Denomy, S. Gandon, M. Boots, S. Paterson, A. Buckling, E.R. Westra. The Diversity-generating Benefits of a Prokaryotic Adaptive Immune System. Nature, 2016.

  2. M. Landsberger, S. Gandon, S. Meaden, C. Rollie, A. Chevallereau, H. Chabas, A. Buckling, E.R. Westra, S. van Houte. Anti-CRISPR Phages Cooperate to Overcome CRISPR-Cas Immunity. Cell, 2018.

  3. C Rollie*, A Chevallereau*, B.N.J. Watson, T Chyou, O Fradet, I McLeod, P.C. Fineran, C.M. Brown, S. Gandon, E.R Westra. Targeting of Temperate Phages Drives Loss of Type I CRISPR-Cas SystemsNature, 2019.

  4. E.O. Alseth, E. Pursey, A.M. Luján, I. McLeod, C. Rollie, E.R. Westra. Bacterial Biodiversity Drives the Evolution of CRISPR-based Phage Resistance in Pseudomonas Aeruginosa.  Nature, 2019.

Other Honors:

2020Philip Leverhulme Prize
2020Blavatnik Awards for Young Scientists in the UK Finalist, Blavatnik Family Foundation
2020Fleming Prize, Microbiology Society
2016Heineken Young Investigator Award, Dutch Royal Society for Science
2014Johanna Westerdijk Award, Netherlands Society for Microbiology
2013H.G.K. Westenbrink Prize, The Netherlands Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology


In the Media:

Scientific American5 Big Mysteries about CRISPR's Origins

The EconomistViruses That Attack Bacteria Have Evolved to Collaborate

IndependentGene Editing Could Bring an End to All Inherited Disease and Cancer, Expert Says

Westra Lab

Staff Profile