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Kalai Mathee

Title: Professor

Office: AHC4 220, AHC4 223, AHC4 241

Phone: Business 305-348-0628; Campus 305-348-1829


Department(s): Human and Molecular Genetics, Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine

Dr. Mathee is the first founding faculty member and founding chairman of the Department of Molecular Microbiology and Infectious Diseases. A native of Malaysia, Dr. Mathee is a dedicated and demanding teacher who has received high praises from her students. She received BSc (Genetics) and M Sc (Microbial Genetics) degrees from the University of Malaya and went on to complete her Ph.D. in Molecular Microbiology at the University of Tennessee, Memphis under the tutelage of Martha M. Howe. Her fascination with Pseudomonas aeruginosa and cystic fibrosis (CF) started in 1993 when she joined Dennis Ohman's lab as a postdoctoral fellow. This led her to spend time in Copenhagen working with Niels Hoiby and Soren Molin on various aspects of the infections that ultimately lead to the pulmonary failure in CF patients. In 1999, she joined the Department of Biological Sciences at FIU as an Assistant Professor of Pathogenic Microbiology. Dr. Mathee has established a multi-faceted research program focused on molecular pathogenesis in the model organism Pseudomonas aeruginosa that is responsible for the high morbidity and mortality in CF patients. She is very passionate about her research and how it might contribute to increasing cystic fibrosis patient quality of life. She is well-respected nationally and internationally by researchers in multiple fields, including Pseudomonas pathogenesis, alternate therapy using botanicals, microbial biofilm development, regulation of prokaryotic transcription and phage molecular biology. She has published more than 50 articles and several book chapters in the fields of molecular microbiology, forensic science and bioinformatics - many of which are recognized as seminal and have been selected for journal highlights. In 2008, one of her papers was selected by the Faculty of 1000 Biology members, a much-coveted honor.

In 2011, she received the Mentor of the year award and was bestowed the highest honor of her career in FIU, the President's Council Worlds Ahead Faculty Award in recognition of outstanding achievement as a student-centered professor who makes an impact and exceeds expectations (Watch on YouTube)

She serves as Editor of Journal of Medical Microbiology and BMC Microbiology.

Research Areas

The main focus of my research since Fall 1993 can be summarized as the "Molecular Genetic Studies of Bacterial Pathogenicity Using Pseudomonas aeruginosa as the Model Organism". In addition, I also work on bioinformatics, comparative genomics and microbial metagenomic profiling. P. aeruginosa is an opportunistic bacterium that causes a variety of severe and sometimes lethal infections of the respiratory tract, urinary tract, intestine, eyes, ears, and wounds. It has become a serious threat to immuno-compromised patients, and it is increasingly difficult to treat due to both intrinsic and acquired resistance to multiple anti-microbial agents. Chronic infection with P. aeruginosa remains the most common cause of morbidity and mortality among patients with cystic fibrosis (CF), an inherited disease among Caucasians, afflicting 1 in 3500 live births in the USA. Antibiotic therapy, with a mixture of aminoglycoside and ß-lactam antibiotics, is most often prescribed. However, such treatment often fails in CF patients due to the emergence of resistant strains that have a mucoid appearance. My area of research on this organism can be subdivided into five subsections:

  • Molecular mechanism of mucoid conversion. The mucoid appearance is caused by production of a capsule-like polysaccharide called alginate. The organism uses a complex circuitry to control the expression of the genes that lead to the production of alginate and that ultimately kill CF patients. Since 1993, I have worked on a number of questions related to alginate gene regulation and the role of alginate in the infectious process.
  • Molecular mechanism of resistance to ß-lactam antibiotics. In 1999, I realized that the genetic events underlying the resistance mechanism, especially to ß-lactam antibiotics in P. aeruginosa, had not been clearly elucidated. This area is the major focus in my lab. I was able to get continuous federal funding for this project. Since my sabbatical in 2006, we collaborate with Steve Lory (Harvard Medical School) on genomics and proteomics analyses.
  • Alternative and complementary therapy. In addition, I have been very interested in exploring alternative and complementary therapy for patients suffering from chronic P. aeruginosa infections. The focus is on P. aeruginosa quorum sensing (QS) that is critical for its ability to establish and maintain infections. Two major aspects of this project are exploring antimicrobial compounds from South Florida medicinal plants and exploring the role of ginseng in modulating the disease outcome. In addition we are also screening synthetic compounds with potential anti-quorum sensing activities. This is a collaborative research effort with John Makemson (Department of Biological Sciences), Steve Wnuk and Martin Quirke (Dept of Chemistry & Biochemistry) and Fred Ausubel (Harvard Medical School)
  • CF sputum ecology. Only 5% of the microbes in nature are culturable, we hypothesize that the routine culturable methods currently being used for the identification of bacterial pathogens from CF sputa yield limited microbiological information, and fail to identify numerous pathogenic bacterial species that are potentially present in the airways of CF patients. We have been using molecular methods for the direct detection of specific microorganisms in the heterogeneous CF sputum samples. This is a collaborative research with University of Miami Cystic Fibrosis Center (Dr. Michael Light) and Miami Children's Hospital (Dr. Maria Franco and Dr. Simpser).


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