Clostridium difficile, a spore-forming human pathogen commonly found in the healthcare environment, is often described as a "super bug" because of its multi-drug resistance. Texas A&M biologist Joseph Sorg and his research group are working to design novel drugs to effectively treat if not prevent C diff-related infections, which affect nearly 250,000 Americans every year.


Of the millions of patients admitted to U.S. hospitals each year, nearly 250,000 will contract the dangerous bacterial infection Clostridium difficile during their stay. A Texas A&M University biologist is on a mission to understand why.

Joseph Sorg, a professor in the Texas A&M Department of Biology since 2010, is part of a collaboration buoyed by a five-year, $7.5 million grant awarded last August by the National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Diseases -- a branch of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) -- to identify characteristics that predispose people to Clostridium difficile, or C. diff.

Sorg is joined in the investigation by researchers at Baylor College of Medicine, the University of Houston College of Pharmacy and UCLA. The award marks his fifth NIH grant in the past four years and the first of two he earned in 2016 alone.

"C. diff infections are the number one hospital-acquired infection," Sorg said. "What's really interesting is that we really don't understand what makes people susceptible to C. diff infections. What about this disruption is allowing C. diff to come in and colonize?"

C. difficile is an intestinal bacterium that causes life-threatening diarrhea and severe inflammation of the colon. Infections occur predominantly in healthcare facilities, most often due to the improper administration of antibiotics. While various antibiotics are used to treat infections, they also can disrupt the natural order of the good bacteria that protects the gut from bad bacteria. This enables the C. difficile pathogen to colonize, leading to a devastating inflammation of the colon.

For his part, Sorg's laboratory will collect data on how C. difficile colonizes in animal models, particularly mice, which have an exceptionable ability to recover from illness. Their aim is to identify and observe mutant strains of C. difficile to determine if they, too, can trigger intestinal damage.

The long-term goal, Sorg notes, is to lay the groundwork to prevent future infections and limit the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria -- C. difficile and others -- through the combined efforts of each institution involved in the research.

"The College of Science's involvement in this project will actually keep us toward the forefront of what our understanding is of pathogenesis and pathogenic organisms and how they might cause disease in human hosts," Sorg said.

Although the C. difficile bacteria was first identified in 1935, Sorg says it wasn't until it was recognized in animal models in the 1970s that interest soared within scientific circles. The genome was sequenced in 2006, the same year Sorg earned his doctorate in microbiology at the University of Chicago. Little research had been done on the pathogen up to that point, and Sorg says he jumped at the chance to become a forerunner in the newly emerging science of how to manipulate the deadly organism.

"Very little was known about C. diff spores," Sorg said. "This provided an opportunity to get in on the ground floor and help tease apart the physiology of an important human pathogen."

To learn more about Sorg and his research, visit http://www.thesorglab.com/.

For additional information about the Texas A&M Department of Biology, visit http://www.bio.tamu.edu/.

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About Research at Texas A&M University: As one of the world's leading research institutions, Texas A&M is at the forefront in making significant contributions to scholarship and discovery, including that of science and technology. Research conducted at Texas A&M represented annual expenditures of more than $892.7 million in fiscal year 2016. Texas A&M ranked in the top 20 of the National Science Foundation's Higher Education Research and Development survey (2015), based on expenditures of more than $866.6 million in fiscal year 2015. Texas A&M's research creates new knowledge that provides basic, fundamental and applied contributions resulting, in many cases, in economic benefits to the state, nation and world. To learn more, visit http://research.tamu.edu.


Contact: Chris Jarvis, (979) 845-7246 or cjarvis@science.tamu.edu or Dr. Joseph Sorg, (979) 845-6299 or jsorg@bio.tamu.edu

Jarvis Chris

  • Clostridium difficile samples being studied within the Sorg Lab.

  • C. diff spores, as viewed with a microscope.

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