Biochemistry society cites Orth with Young Investigator Award

By Deborah Wormser

Dr. Kim Orth, Professor of Molecular Biology and Biochemistry, has won the American Society of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology’s Young Investigator Award for identifying the molecular mechanisms that disease-causing bacteria use to flourish and avoid detection.

Dr. Kim Orth
Dr. Kim Orth

A UT Southwestern faculty member since 2001, Dr. Orth has identified previously unknown mechanisms by which invading bacteria hijack and deregulate a cell’s signaling systems, cutting off its ability to communicate with immune-system cells. Her work has led to a new understanding of the fundamental mechanisms human cells use for survival, and it has important implications in medicine, especially in understanding and potentially treating infectious diseases and immune-related conditions.

One such finding is her discovery that an infectious ocean-dwelling bacterium found in oysters and other shellfish kills its host’s cells by bursting them, thereby providing a nutrient-rich meal that the bacteria uses to fuel its own proliferation. The invading pathogen also overtakes the host’s usually tightly controlled autophagy, the process by which cells recycle unneeded components to produce energy.

Demonstrating how the bacterium commandeers autophagy led to the discovery of an entirely new way that ATP, a molecule that helps provide energy to cells, can alter other molecules.

“We hope the discovery of these novel biological processes will lead to the development of new strategies and treatments to combat disease,” Dr. Orth said.

She will receive $5,000 and present a lecture titled “Black Spot, Black Death, Black Pearl: The Tales of Bacterial Effectors” at the group’s Experimental Biology 2012 conference April 24 in San Diego.

Dr. Orth’s other honors and recognitions include the 2011 Edith and Peter O’Donnell Award in Science, presented by The Academy of Medicine, Engineering and Science of Texas (TAMEST), and the  2010 Norman Hackerman Award in Chemical Research, from The Welch Foundation. Dr. Orth was named a Beckman Young Investigator in 2003 by the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation, and in 2006 was named a Burroughs Wellcome Investigator in Pathogenesis of Infectious Disease by the Burroughs Wellcome Fund.

Dr. Orth earned her doctorate at UT Southwestern in 1993 before completing a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Michigan.

Dr. Steven McKnight, Chairman of Biochemistry, will present the ASBMB’s plenary lecture April 22.


Dr. Orth is a W.W. Caruth Jr. Scholar in Medical Research.

Dr. McKnight is Distinguished Chair in Basic Biomedical Research and Sam G. Winstead and F. Andrew Bell Distinguished Chair in Biochemistry.