In our recent Special Topics analysis on Tuberculosis
(TB) research over the past decade, Professor Stewart Cole
ranks at #2 by total citations, based on 51 papers cited a
total of 4,662 times. Professor Cole is also the lead
author on the most-cited paper overall in the analysis. His
Essential Science IndicatorsSMfrom
Reuters includes 116 papers cited a total of 6,764
times between January 1, 1998 and October 31, 2008. He is
Highly Cited Researcher in Microbiology.
Professor Cole is the Director of the Global Health Institute as well
as the Chair of Microbial Pathogenesis in the School of Life Sciences at
the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) in
correspondent Gary Taubes talks with Professor Cole
about his TB research.
What prompted your initial research interest
I was working on leprosy originally, and there are quite a lot of
similarities between the leprosy bacillus and the tuberculosis bacillus.
Even in the mid-1980s, there were quite a lot of cases of multi-drug
resistant TB, which was becoming a major problem in the industrialized
world again. So I decided to make a sideways move and get involved in TB
As first author of the 1998 TB sequencing paper in
Nature, your most-cited article, it suggests you were the
driving force behind the project. Is that the case?
Yes. I knew we had the material in hand to sequence the TB genome. We had
all the biology and the genomic DNA and ordered libraries and clones, which
could be used for sequencing or mapping. So I went around to different
funding agencies to try and convince them to support the project and put up
the necessary cash. Some of them said this kind of stuff is not important,
or that this wasn’t real science, but in the end I managed to
convince the Wellcome Trust to fund the bulk of the work.
Considering your difficulty getting funding, was it
challenging, as well, recruiting a team to analyze the data? And how
did you decide whom to approach?
It wasn’t difficult at all to convince the scientists to get
involved. Most of them could see immediately that this was hot stuff,
something that would turn out to be important. The funding agencies were
just much more conservative. As for whom we contacted, we wanted people
with expertise in different areas. Obviously, we wanted people, for
instance, who were strong in genomics. That’s where the Sanger
Institute came in. They played a really great part.
"The vaccine work has progressed
quite a lot thanks to the
To understand the biology, we had to recruit experts, specialists, in very
unique areas of science—lipid metabolism, for instance—and so
we asked Clif Barry to get involved and give us a hand and analyze the
data. He played a fantastic role in the project. We also recruited experts
in membrane proteins and transcription factors. You have to realize that
these genome projects generate colossal amounts of information, far more
than one mind can possibly handle or analyze, so teamwork was critical.
Certainly getting the right people together was part of the challenge, but
it was also very rewarding.
Were there other significant challenges that had to
be overcome in doing this research and reporting the results?
What made it quite an effort to write that paper was that we had so much to
say. These days, genome papers are fairly trivial, because there are such a
lot of them. I think our paper was maybe the 11th or
12th genome published; it was the first one for a major pathogen
and we had a lot of new information. The difficult thing was to decide what
was important and worthy of inclusion in the paper, and what was
peripheral. At that time it wasn’t really obvious.
So we focused on a number of areas that were highlighted by the abundance
of the genes in the genome. We found a huge number of genes involved in
lipid metabolism, for instance, both in the synthesis and the degradation
of lipids. So quite a lot of the paper is devoted to that.
Another thing we found was a whole series of genes or gene families coding
for unusual proteins that had never been seen anywhere else. They turned
out to be surface proteins of Mycobacterium tuberculosis (MTB).
That was quite an important finding, and so we devoted considerable space
Then, as the title says, we learned an awful lot about the biology of the
organism from its genome. The sequence enabled us to predict which
metabolic pathways were present and make some informed guesses about the
physiology of MTB, and quite a lot of those guesses turned out to be
Were you surprised at how much you
No. I don’t think so. I was always a believer in genomics as a way of
generating large amounts of new information. I was surprised, though, by
some of the things we found. It turned out that there were a lot of protein
kinases, for instance, that were more similar to eukaryotic kinases than
prokaryotic ones. That was quite an interesting finding. There are a lot of
surprising vignettes like that.
If you published your paper again, what, if
anything, would you write differently and why?
I think we got the balance right. I think we made the right decisions at
the time. A lot of things that we said were interesting, particularly in
the lipid metabolism area. We predicted how some of the glycolipids of the
cell envelope would be made, and those predictions turned out to be
correct. We also predicted how some of the lipids would look; we speculated
that they might be important, and subsequently other investigators
In doing this, I think the paper played two major roles. One was in making
available a lot of this new information to the community from a very early
stage, and the other was in speculating and presenting some new hypotheses,
which a lot of other people went on and tested. We generated such a huge
amount of information from the genome; obviously one laboratory alone
can’t possibly handle all that.
Your second most-cited paper is the 2002
PNAS article, "A new evolutionary scenario for the
Mycobacterium tuberculosis complex." What was the new
evolutionary scenario and why has this paper been so
It’s always been claimed that TB was a disease of zoonotic origin and
that humans had contracted it from infection with a cattle form of the
bacillus -- from Mycobacterium bovis. What we reported in that
paper, from work derived from the genome sequence, is that we identified a
series of polymorphic markers, in particular regions, which had been
deleted from the genome of some species—such as Mycobacterium
bovis or BCG (Bacille Calmette-Guérin), the strain used in
vaccines—and found that these deletions had occurred after
Mycobacterium bovis and MTB had separated.
So, in fact, MTB was the ancestral strain and Mycobacterium bovis
was descended from it. This suggested that the theory in the literature was
wrong. Rather than humans acquiring the disease from cattle, it looks more
likely that cattle acquired the disease from humans.
Has this new evolutionary scenario held up with
"I knew we had the material in hand
to sequence the TB
Yes, that’s been confirmed by other investigators and with different
techniques. This turned out to be a remarkably robust and accurate model.
How has the TB research landscape changed in the
decade since you sequenced the genome?
I think people have been able to do experiments in a much more informed
manner. We can see what genes are in the genome, and now in about half the
cases we know with great accuracy what their function is. People are now
able to do informed experiments: they have a hypothesis and they can test
it in a direct way, rather than indirect ways, as in the past.
It used to be that people would try to assess the effect of a gene by
isolating mutants. When you can see what the gene does, you can test it in
a forward manner. It’s been amazingly helpful and extremely useful
for biochemists, enzymologists, and crystallographers, those who work with
proteins. They can take genes, express them in bacteria or yeast, purify
the recombinant protein, test its activity, and so on.
Did the genome sequence help in developing a better
The vaccine work has progressed quite a lot thanks to the genome. Again,
for instance, to illustrate my point, people have always been aware that
important proteins for generating an immune response were often secreted
proteins or surface-exposed proteins. With the genome information in hand,
we could identify those proteins just from looking at the sequence. Then we
could draw up a hit list of interesting proteins to test and express.
It’s a question of doing things in an informed manner rather than
What is your research focusing on today?
Mostly drug discovery for TB. In this field the genome information has been
extremely useful also. First of all, as I said, it provides us with
information about potential drug targets, so we can test hypotheses.
Secondly, thanks to some of the new technologies, like gene expression
microrarrays and transcriptomics, we can obtain information about how
existing drugs or even new compounds work by studying which genes are
turned on and off in response to treatment with that drug. This has been
quite a useful tool.
Thirdly, the genome has been really useful for identifying targets for new
drugs by means of isolating resistant mutants and then sequencing the
genome to find where the mutation is. This has been quite a fantastic gain
in time in terms of identifying drug targets. Traditionally people would
have done that using genetic approaches, but MTB grows really slowly. It
used to take six to nine months to find that information, whereas now we
can get that information in a week.
What do you consider the most challenging aspect of
It’s not impossibly difficult to work with MTB, but two factors are
major problems. First, as I said, it grows very slowly, so experiments take
a long time and that can be rather frustrating. An experiment you can do
with E. coli in a week, might take six months to do with MTB. And
then, of course, the other major constraint is that MTB is a category 3
pathogen. So we have to work in containment facilities, using very
stringent safety procedures. That’s a major restriction and not every
research center has these facilities, so that really slows things down.
What unexpected or serendipitous events arose in
the course of your research?
Nothing that I would call unexpected or serendipitous, but where we got
lucky, if you like, with the genome is by getting the right people
together, putting together a team that worked well and efficiently and with
whom it was really enjoyable experience to work. Often times when you work
with people you don’t know, it can turn out to be less than a great
experience. Doing the genome project was an extremely positive and
memorable experience. A lot of the people we worked with, some of the
authors on that Nature paper, I had never met until then. They
played a really important part in the project and it was rewarding to work
If we lived in an ideal world, and you had an
unlimited source of funds to do one single experiment, what would you
Well, this is a little bit disconnected from the topic of our discussion,
and it’s not exactly an experiment, but it would be to invest in
technology that would show whether a candidate drug would actually work in
humans. That would be an important step forward, because we can’t
really understand what compounds are going to cure diseases in humans and
which ones won’t. We’re starting to build a basis of
understanding, but it’s still pretty fragmentary. If we had a good
predictor of what will work and what won’t, that would very much help
drive the science of drug discovery.
Professor Stewart T. Cole, FRS
Global Health Institute
School of Life Sciences
École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne