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Steven R. Blanke

Professor of Microbiology
Ralph S. Wolfe Professorial Scholar

Research Interests

Genetics, Host-Pathogen Interactions, Membrane Biology, Microbial Physiology, Molecular Immunology, Receptor Biochemistry, Signal Transduction, Toxins

Research Description

Infection Biology and Cancer, Host-pathogen Interactions, Bacterial Pathogenesis, Bacterial Toxins

Modulation of host cells and tissues by bacterial toxins

Many pathogenic bacteria generate protein toxins that modulate properties of host cells and tissues in order to create a more suitable niche for colonization and, in some cases, to persist for extraordinary periods of time. We are studying the cellular intoxication mechanisms and structure-function relationships of several toxins that, to be successful, must traverse the membrane barrier into human cells. We are especially interested in investigating mechanisms of cellular entry and trafficking, as well as the action of toxins on immune cells. Current model systems in the laboratory include the vacuolating cytotoxin (VacA0 from Helicobacter pylori, the cytolethal distending toxins, and a novel toxin we have recently discovered from Helicobacter pylori.

Molecular and cellular basis of chronic bacterial infections

There is particular interest in understanding mechanisms that allow pathogenic organisms to persist within the host during chronic infection. An emerging paradigm is that persistent organisms are highly adaptive because they have co-evolved with their hosts. As a model system, the Blanke Laboratory is focusing on persistent infection in humans with the gastric pathogen, Helicobacter pylori, which is a significant risk factor for the development of gastric ulcer disease and stomach cancer. Because nearly half the world's population is infected with H. pylori, and because of increasing antibiotic resistance, gastric diseases caused by these micro-organisms are an important biomedical problem. Current research is focused on the contributions of a bacterial toxin (VacA) produced by H. pylori towards remodeling the host environment to create a more suitable niche to colonize and persist for the lifetime of the host in the absence of medical intervention. In addition, there is ongoing research to identify mechanisms by which H. pylori organisms are remodeled to become more adaptive to the stomach. These mechanisms include the capacity of H. pylori to sequester host cholesterol, and to change very rapidly to adapt to changes within the stomach.

Intracellular lifestyles of pathogenic bacteria

We are investigating mechanisms by which pathogenic bacteria not only survive encounters with host immune cells, but are able to exploit these cells by entering, surviving, and in some cases, replicating and escaping. Our model system is Bacillus anthracis, the causative agent of inhalation anthrax. The Blanke laboratory has been investigating the mechanisms by which B. anthracis enters the human lung and exploits the immune response in order to cause disease. Current work centers on the interaction of B. anthracis spores with human cells, and the capacity of B. anthracis to exploit the intracellular phagolysosome environment to germinate and replicate.

Induction of "limited damage" within the host

We are interested in strategies used by pathogenic bacteria to limit damage within the host as a strategy for promoting infection or persistence. We are focusing on mechanisms by which pathogenic organisms are capable of manipulating the human cell cycle through the action of a relatively new family of bacterial toxins, called the cytolethal distending toxins. We are investigating the cellular intoxication mechanisms, structure-function relationships, and evolutionary relationships between these toxins.

Complex Infections

The Blanke Laboratory has undertaken research, associated with the IGB Host-Microbe Systems Theme, to study the dynamic interactions between the host and its commensal as well as pathogenic microbes to elucidate basic processes of disease and commensalism. This research will initially focus on the complex ecosystem of the vaginal microbiota and its impact on health and disease in women.

Development of molecular countermeasures targeting pathogenic bacteria

The ultimate goal of the basic science conducted within the Blanke laboratory is to develop new countermeasures against pathogenic organisms. Current projects, which are highly collaborative, target B. anthracis, the botulinum neurotoxins, the cytolethal distending toxins, VacA, and H. pylori.


B.A. (Biochemistry), Virginia Tech University 1982
Ph.D. (Biochemistry), University of Illinois, 1989
Postdoctoral (Microbiology and Molecular Genetics), Harvard Medical School, 1990-1995

Awards and Honors

Research & Scholarship Awards

2017 Named the Ralph S. Wolfe Professorial Scholar
2015 Fellow of the American Academy of Microbiology
2014 Faculty Excellence Award (one award given per year within the School of Molecular and Cellular Biology at the University of Illinois)
2004 Award for Excellence in Research and Scholarship at the Associate Professor Level - University of Houston (one university award per year at each academic rank)
2002 Award for Excellence in Research and Scholarship at the Assistant Professor Level - University of Houston (one university award per year at each academic rank)
1999 Young Investigator Award, 10th International Meeting Campylobacter & Helicobacter
1997 Natural Science and Mathematics Alumni Association Award
1996 Oakridge Junior Faculty Award for Life Sciences Research
1981 NSF Undergraduate Research Award

Teaching Awards & Recognition

2010, 2013 Cited as a Teacher ranked as outstanding by their students for Molecular and Cellular Biology/Life Sciences and College of Medicine Courses
2011, 2012, 2008, 2009 Cited as a Teacher ranked as excellent by their students for Molecular and Cellular Biology/Life Sciences and College of Medicine Courses
1999 Teaching Excellence Award, College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics
1998-1999 University of Houston Enron Award for Excellence in Teaching at the University level

Recent Lectureships, Meeting Chairs, Leadership Positions

2018 Plenary Session Speaker: ASM Microbe on Gut-Brain Axis
2017 Conference Chair, 2017 Gordon Conference on Chemical & Biological Terrorism Defense, Ventura, CA, March 10-15, 2015.
2017 Convener, Opening Plenary Session, 2017 Gordon Conference on Chemical & Biological Terrorism Defense, Ventura, CA, March 10, 2017
2017 International Steering Committee, International Conference on Bacillus anthracis, B. cereus, and B. thuringiensis
2017 Sessions Chair, Pathogenicity and Toxins, Sessions 1 and 2, International Conference on Bacillus anthracis, B. cereus, and B. thuringiensis
2016 Session Chair, 2016 Midwest Microbial Pathogenesis Conference
2016 Keynote Speaker 4th International Conference on Bacteriology and Infectious diseases
(2016) Extending the Gut-Brain Axis: The Curious Case of Helicobacter pylori, May 16-18, 2016 at San Antonio, USA
2016 Organizing Committee, 2016 Midwest Microbial Pathogenesis Conference
2016 Organizing Committee, 4th Conference on Bacteriology and Infectious diseases, May 16-18, 2016 at San Antonio, USA
2015 Chair, Scientific Session on Toxins, 2015 International Conference on Bacillus anthracis, B. cereus, and B. thuringiensis, New Delhi, India, November 2, 2015
2015 Convener and Organizer, Symposium on Stem Cells and Microbial Reprogramming of Host Cells and Tissues, 2014 ASM General Meeting, New Orleans, June 1, 2015
2015 Chair, Opening Plenary Session, 2015 Gordon Conference on Chemical & Biological Terrorism Defense, Ventura, CA, March 10-15, 2015
2015 Organizing Committee and Vice-Chair, 2015 Gordon Conference on Chemical & Biological Terrorism Defense, Ventura, CA, March 10-15, 2015
2014 Co-Organizer, and Co-Master of Ceremonies, Lowell P. Hager Memorial Symposium (2014) Urbana, IL, October 17-18, 2014
2014 Finalist for 2016 Vice Chair and 2018 Chair, Gordon Conference on Microbial Toxins and Pathogenicity, Waterville Valley, NH
2014-2015 Council Member, Division B (Microbial Pathogens) of American Society for Microbiology
2014 Plenary Session Convener and Organizer, Malignant Microbiology. 2014 ASM General Meeting, Boston, MA, May 2014
2013 Chair, Bacteria-Host Interactions (2013) 2013 International Conference on Bacillus anthracis, B. cereus, and B. thuringiensis, Victoria, Canada, September 2, 2013
2013-2014 Chair, Division B (Microbial Pathogens) of ASM
2013 Discussion Leader/Session Chair, Organizing Committee, 2013 Gordon Conference on Chemical & Biological Terrorism Defense, Ventura, CA, March 10-15, 2013
2012-2013 Chair Elect, Division B (Microbial Pathogens) of ASM, 2012-2013
2011 Session Chair, Organizing Committee, 2011 International Conference on Campylobacter, Helicobacter, and Related Organisms, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, August 28 – September 1, 2011
2011 Keynote Speaker, 23rd Annual Buffalo Conference on Microbial Pathogenesis – Witebsky Center for Microbial Pathogenesis and Immunology (2011) Of Persistence, Cancer, and Asthma: The Curious Case of Helicobacter pylori, Buffalo, NY, April 29, 2011
2011 Organizing Committee, and Discussion Leader/Session Chair, 2011 Gordon Conference on Chemical & Biological Terrorism Defense, Ventura, CA, March 20-25, 2011

Highlighted Publications

Representative Publications

Kim, I.-J., Lee, Jeongmin, Oh¬¬¬¬¬, S. J., Yoon, M.-S., Jang, S.-S., Holland, R. L., Reno, M. L., Hamad, M. N., Maeda, T., Chung, H. J., Chen, J., & Blanke, S. R. (2018) Helicobacter pylori infection modulates host cell metabolism through VacA-dependent inhibition of mTORC1, Cell Host & Microbe, 2018 May 9;23(5):583-593.

Eshraghi, A., Dixon, S. D., Tamilselvam, B., Kim, E. J.-K., Gargi, A., Kulik. J. C., Damoiseaux, R., Blanke, S. R., & Bradley, K. A. (2014) Cytolethal distending toxins require components of the ER-associated degradation pathway for host cell entry. PLoS Pathogens 10:e1004295. PMCID: PMC4117610.

Gillespie, E.J., Ho, C.-L. C., Balaji, K., Li, Z., Thomas, D., Clemens, D. L., Deng, G.,. Wang, Y. E., Elsaesser, H. J., Tamilselvam, B., France, B., Camberlain, B. T., Blanke, S. R., Cheng, G., de la Torre, J. C., Brooks, D. G., Jung, M. E., Manchester, M., Zink, J. I., Colicelli, J., Damoiseaux, R., & Bradley, K. A. (2013) A selective inhibitor of endosomal trafficking pathways exploited by multiple toxins and viruses protects rats from anthrax toxin. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 110, 4904-12. PMCID: PMC3864319.

Gargi, A., Powers, B, Tamilselvam, B., Prouty, M. G., Lincecum, T., Maldonaldo-Arocho, F. J., Eshraghi, A., Wilson, B. A., Bradley, K. A., & Blanke, S. R. (2013) Cellular interactions of the cytolethal distending toxins from Escherichia coli and Haemophilus ducreyi, Journal of Biological Chemistry 288, 7492-7505. PMCID: PMC3597790.

Jain, P., Luo, Z.-Q., & Blanke, S. R. (2011) Helicobacter pylori VacA engages the mitochondrial apoptotic machinery by inducing Drp1-mediated mitochondrial fission, Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 108, 16032-16037. PMCID: PMC3179038.

Han, H., Hemp, J., Pace, L., Ouyang, H., Ganesan, K., Roh, J. H, Daldal, F., Blanke, S. R., & Gennis, R. (2011) Adaptation of aerobic respiration to low O2 environments. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 108, 14109-14114. PMCID: PMC3161551.

Gut, I, Blanke, S. R., and van der Donk, W. (2011) Mechanism of Inhibition of Bacillus anthracis Spore Outgrowth by the Lantibiotic Nisin, Chemical Biology 6, 744-752. PMCID: PMC3178273.

Gupta, V. R., Wilson, B. A., & Blanke, S. R. (2010) Sphingomyelin is important for the uptake and intracellular trafficking of the Helicobacter pylori VacA, Cellular Microbiology 12, 1517-1533. PMCID: PMC2980835.

Nossa, C. W., deMurcia, G., Jain, P., Chen, L.- F., Desnoyers, S., & Blanke, S. R. (2009) Activation of the intrinsic catalytic activity of the nuclear factor, poly(ADP-ribose) polymerase-1, by Helicobacter pylori both in vitro and during infection. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U S A 106, 19998-20003.

Blanke, S. R. (2009) Expanding functionality within the Looking Glass Universe. Science 325, 1505-1506.

Lamb A., Yang, X. -D., Tsang, Y. –H., Li, J. –D., Higashi, H., Hatakeyama, M., Peek, R. M., Blanke, S. R., and Chen, L. –F. (2009) Helicobacter pylori CagA stimulates NF-kB by activating TAK1 via TRAF6-mediated K63-ubiquitination. EMBO Reports, 10, 1242-1249.

Barua, S., McKevitt, M., DeGuisti, K., Hamm, E. E., Larabee, J., Shakir, S., Bryant, K., Spies MA, Reese JG, Dodd D, Pankow KL, Blanke SR, Baudry J. (2009) Determinants of Catalytic Power and Ligand Binding in Glutamate Racemase. J Am Chem Soc. 131, 5274-5284.

Kim, T. K., Thomas, S. M, Ho, M., Sharma, S., Reich, C. I., Frank, J. A., Yeater, K. M., Biggs, D., Nakamura, N., Stumpf, R., Leigh, S. R., Tapping, R. I., Blanke, S. R., Slauch, J. M., Gaskins, H. R., Weisbaum, J. S., Olsen, G. J., Hoyer, L. L., and Wilson, B. A. (2009) Heterogeneity of vaginal microbial communities within individuals. Journal of Clinical Microbiology 47, 1181-1189.

Gupta, V. R., Patel, H. K., Kostolansky, S. S., Ballivian, R. A., Eichberg, J., and Blanke, S. R. (2008) Sphingomyelin Functions as a Novel Receptor for Helicobacter pyloriVacA, PLoS Pathogens 4e1000072, 1-12.

Blanke, S. R., & Cover, T.L. (2008) Helicobacter pylori vacuolating toxin, in Molecular Genetics of Helicobacter, Yamaoka, Y (ed.) Horizon Scientific Press, UK, 87-114.

Ampapathi, R. S., Lou, D. I., Creath, A. L., Blanke, S. R., & Legge, G. B. (2008) Order - Disorder - order transitions mediate the activation of cholera toxin. Journal of Molecular Biology 377, 748-760.

Ye, D., & Blanke, S. R. (2006) Bacterial toxins as Cellular Modulators, in Molecular Paradigms of Infectious Disease: A Bacterial Perspective, C. A. Nickerson, M. Schurr (eds.), 321-403; Springer Press, US.

Blanke, S. R. (2006) Portals and pathways: Principles of bacterial toxin entry into cells,  Microbe 1, 26-32.

Blanke, S. R. (2005) Micro-managing the Executioner: Pathogen Targeting of Mitochondria, Trends in Microbiology 13, 64-71.

Cover, T.L., & Blanke, S. R. (2005) Helicobacter pylori VacA as a paradigm for toxin multifunctionality, Nature Reviews Microbiology 3, 320-332.

Willhite, D.C., Cover, T.L., & Blanke, S.R. (2003) Cellular vacuolation and mitochondrial cytochrome c release are independent outcomes of Helicobacter pylori vacuolating cytotoxin activity that are each dependent on membrane channel formation, J. Biol. Chem. 278, 48204-48209.

Blanke, S. R., Milne, J. C., Benson, E. L., & Collier, R. J. (1996) Fused polycationic peptide mediates delivery of diphtheria toxin A chain to the cytosol in the presence of anthrax protective antigen, Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 93, 8437-8442. PMCID: PMC38689.

Wilson, B. A., Blanke, S. R., Murphy, J. R., Pappenheimer, A. M., and Collier, R. J. (1990) Does Diphtheria Toxin have Nuclease Activity? Science 250, 832-838.

Recent Publications

Seeger, A. Y., Zaidi, F., Alhayek, S., Jones, R. M., Zohair, H., Holland, R. L., Kim, I-J., & Blanke, S. R. (2023). Host cell sensing and restoration of mitochondrial function and metabolism within Helicobacter pylori VacA intoxicated cells. mBio, 14(5), Article 02117-23. Advance online publication.

Huang, G., Boesze-Battaglia, K., Walker, L. P., Zekavat, A., Schaefer, Z. P., Blanke, S. R., & Shenker, B. J. (2021). The Active Subunit of the Cytolethal Distending Toxin, CdtB, Derived From Both Haemophilus ducreyi and Campylobacter jejuni Exhibits Potent Phosphatidylinositol-3,4,5-Triphosphate Phosphatase Activity. Frontiers in Cellular and Infection Microbiology, 11, Article 664221.

Holland, R. L., Bosi, K. D., Harpring, G. H., Luo, J., Wallig, M., Phillips, H., & Blanke, S. R. (2020). Chronic in vivo exposure to Helicobacter pylori VacA: Assessing the efficacy of automated and long-term intragastric toxin infusion. Scientific reports, 10(1), Article 9307.

Kim, I. J., Lee, J., Oh, S. J., Yoon, M. S., Jang, S. S., Holland, R. L., Reno, M. L., Hamad, M. N., Maeda, T., Chung, H. J., Chen, J., & Blanke, S. R. (2018). Helicobacter pylori Infection Modulates Host Cell Metabolism through VacA-Dependent Inhibition of mTORC1. Cell Host and Microbe, 23(5), 583-593.e8.

Cover, T. L., Holland, R. L., & Blanke, S. R. (2016). Helicobacter pylori vacuolating toxin. In Helicobacter pylori Research: From Bench to Bedside (pp. 113-142). Springer.

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