illustration Rut Carballido-López, simply put, a woman of science

4 min

Rut Carballido-López, simply put, a woman of science

Don’t be fooled by the smiling eyes and sing-song lilt of a Catalan accent. Behind this seemingly carefree demeanour is a passionate, world-renowned bacterial cell biologist. At ease with herself and with her Institute, as chatty as she is jovial, Rut Carballido-López, director of research at INRA’s Micalis Institute, tells us, simply and enthusiastically, about her (oh so) fruitful career.

Published on 20 May 2019

How did a radiant, curious and dynamic little girl like Rut Carballido-López become a world specialist in bacterial cytoskeletons, in charge of the Systems and Synthetic Microbiology Scientific Pole of the Joint Research Unit for Food and Gut Microbiology for Human Health (the Micalis Institute), of which she is also the Deputy Director?

A good student, Rut earned her baccalauréat in science without really knowing what path to take. “There were so many things that I liked”, she says. Should she become a veterinarian, like she always dreamed? Or an engineer to dig wells for water in Africa? She wasn’t sure. The Unknown beckoned, and Rut set out on a new adventure, “kind of like going off to summer camp”, leaving Spain for France at the age of 17.


At the human level, an extraordinary adventure

At INSA (Institut National des Sciences Appliqués, one of France’s top engineering schools) in Lyon, Rut was part of the first graduating class of Eurinsa, the European section of the INSA Lyon First Cycle. Time was ticking, and she realised she had to make a decision. Her head told her, albeit very briefly, to go into civil engineering and construction, where she saw herself fulfilling her teenage dreams of digging wells for water in Africa. But in the end, she listened to her heart instead.   The alluring mysteries of the life sciences were calling, and she ended up in biochemical engineering. In the last year of her studies, when she discovered research in microbiology and molecular biology, she knew there was no going back.

Her engineering degree in hand, Rut enrolled in a third-cycle course, completing a thesis at the University of Oxford on “The Bacterial Cytoskeleton: cell shape determination in Bacillus subtilis”.  Her second post-doctoral internship would prove decisive for her career. It brought her back to France, where INRA recruited her as Research Scientist in the Microbial Genetics unit, today an integral part of the Micalis Institute.

Rod, rugby ball, comma or corkscrew… bacteria in all shapes and sizes

Spherical, helical, elongated, curved or tapered. When it comes to the shape of bacteria, there’s something for everyone. During her PhD studies, Rut was instrumental in the landmark discovery that bacteria possess homologues of eukaryotic actin, which determine the shape of the bacterial wall, and therefore of bacteria themselves.


True to her first love: the bacterial cytoskeleton

Synthesis, organisation, regulation, function… Rut and her team threw themselves heart and soul into characterising the bacterial cytoskeleton, especially since it plays such an important role in so many cellular processes - division, virulence and motility, to name a few.  Bacillus subtilis, a ubiquitous, rod-shaped bacteria commonly found in soil and the intestinal tract, served as her model.

With her multidisciplinary approach, over the years Rut developed and used the most advanced techniques in fluorescence microscopy to best visualise the bacterial cytoskeleton and associated proteins. What could be more exciting than following in real time the dynamics in play in the recruitment, assembly, maintenance and ultimately dismantling of the subcellular structures of bacterial cells?

Today, Rut is broadening the scope of her research on the bacterial wall to other cellular processes in which bacterial walls are implicated: competence, or the capacity of bacteria to take up foreign DNA through the phenomenon of genetic transformation; sporulation, or the ability of bacteria to form a protective and metabolically dormant spore to ensure survival; secretion; and infection by bacteriophages, that is, viruses that only attack bacteria.  


Our research paves the way  

Despite the wide diversity of research topics, it all comes down to one, all-important public health issue: resistance to antibiotics. A better understanding of this phenomenon would allow scientists to identify new antibiotics, curb the development of multi-resistant strains of bacteria, and prevent the formation and release of spores that could contaminate the food chain. Rut and her team - made up of a dozen people give or take depending on the funding available at any given time, hence the coming and going of students and post-docs - have high hopes indeed.

The range of topics also reflects Rut’s skills and know-how, which have earned praise for many years now. She practically collects awards and distinctions the way some people collect stamps: humbly, meticulously, and almost systematically. The last, but not the least, is a Consolidator Grant, awarded her by the European Research Council (ERC CoG, 2019-2014). It will allow Rut to pursue her studies on bacterial morphogenesis and to shed new light on the modes of action of cell wall antibiotics.  

Taking action for the greater good

Over the years, Rut has shown her commitment to teaching and making meaningful contributions to the broader scientific community. She is a member of a wide range of committees; editor of The Cell Surface, a scientific journal published by Elsevier for research on all aspects of the cell wall; and co-founder and coordinator of the Microbiology sectorial programme of EMBO’s Young Investigator Programme, designed to promote the best budding researchers in the life sciences in Europe.  In other words, Rut has more than one string in her bow. Parity is also key for her.

Closer to home, Rut is a member of the Scientific Council of Ile de France, inaugurated in June 2018 with some 21 researchers.  Hand-picked for their exceptional careers in science and international experience, they are valued for the multi-disciplinary perspectives they bring to regional issues with a scientific or technological dimension. While the lab remains her top priority, Rut has fully embraced this new experience. For someone who believes we have “so much to learn from others”, it has proved to be an incomparable intellectual adventure.


Find out more

Billaudeau C. et al. MreB Forms Subdiffraction Nanofilaments during Active Growth in Bacillus subtilis. mBio 10.1 (2019): e01879-18. Web. 23 April. 2019.

Krokowski S. et al. Septins Recognize and Entrap Dividing Bacterial Cells for Delivery to Lysosomes. Cell Host Microbe 24: 866 (2018).

Mirouze N. et al. Antibiotic sensitivity reveals that wall teichoic acids mediate DNA binding during competence in Bacillus subtilis. Nature Communications 9: 5072 (2018).

Godinho, L. M. et al. The Revisited Genome of Bacillus subtilis Bacteriophage SPP1. Viruses 10: 705 (2018).

Catherine Foucaudtranslated by Inge Laino