Cheryl Nickerson

Cheryl Nickerson

Professor, Biodesign Center for Fundamental and Applied Microbiomics


My research focuses on the “Mechanobiology of Infectious Disease," a rapidly growing research area that my team helped birth over two decades ago with our discovery that the biomechanical force of fluid shear regulates microbial virulence in the foodborne pathogen Salmonella. Specifically, my lab studies the effects of biomechanical forces on bacterial pathogen and mammalian host cellular responses, how these responses regulate the transition between normal cellular homeostasis or infectious disease progression, and the translation of this knowledge to biomedical and biotechnology applications.  

To accomplish these objectives, we blend microbiology, tissue engineering, and physics to study the dynamic interactions between the pathogen and the host that lead to infection and disease. We have developed several innovative model pathogenesis systems to study these processes, including i) characterizing bacterial pathogen responses to physiological fluid shear forces encountered in the infected host and in the microgravity environment of spaceflight, and ii) 3-D organotypic cell culture models of human mucosal tissues, especially intestine and lung, which closely mimic the structure and function of in vivo tissues. Using these models, we have unveiled novel mechanistic insight into the host-pathogen interaction and infectious disease progression by showing that i) low fluid shear is a novel environmental signal that globally reprograms bacterial pathogens by altering their gene expression, stress responses and virulence, and ii) 3-D tissue models respond to infection with pathogens, their toxins, and antimicrobials in key ways that reflect the infection process in vivo, and which cannot be recapitulated by traditional in vitro cell culture models. We were the first group to apply 3-D tissue culture models to study bacterial pathogens.  

In addition, my lab is actively involved in characterizing the “Microbiome of the Built Environment” as it pertains to infectious disease risks for astronauts and biofouling environmental life support systems of spacecraft.  Our research has flown on numerous NASA Shuttle missions, SpaceX missions, and on the International Space Station. 

A full list of my publications may be found at: