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C. Erec Stebbins, Ph.D.

Associate Professor
Laboratory of Structural Microbiology

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Faculty Bio

C. Erec Stebbins

Bacterial pathogens that have coevolved with their hosts display remarkably sophisticated adaptations, often engaging their hosts in intricate biochemical cross talk. Using techniques from biochemistry, microbial cell biology and x-ray crystallography, Dr. Stebbins’s laboratory examines the targeting of host machineries by these bacterial virulence factors and studies their translocation apparatus, with the eventual goal of using this knowledge to design novel antibiotics.

The large repertoire of virulence factors from pathogens such as Yersinia species (plague), Shigella species (bacterial dysentery), Escherichia coli (enterohaemorrhagic diarrhea), Pseudomonas aeruginosa (opportunistic pneumonia) and Salmonella enterica (gastroenteritis and typhoid fever) includes protein tyrosine phosphatases, protein kinases, lipid phosphatases and other effectors. Structural work with the molecules that make up these virulence factors promises to illuminate many aspects of the host-pathogen interaction and to provide new tools for understanding a variety of basic eukaryotic cellular processes.

Dr. Stebbins’s laboratory is examining effector biochemical and pathogenic activity via structural biology and structure-based mutagenesis in combination with in vitro and in vivo assays. Their ultimate goal is to synthesize a mechanistic understanding of the pathogen’s host-cell invasion process. Since the process is a central event in several pathogenic organisms and an example of subtle and sophisticated biochemical cross talk between host and pathogen, it represents an ideal field of study for infectious disease and structural biology. 

Another effort in the lab is the structural characterization of the type III secretion apparatus used by many bacteria. Type III secretion systems translocate bacterial proteins directly into the host-cell cytosol, are composed of more than 20 proteins and are closely related to the flagellar assembly apparatus. Although the basic components of these incredibly complex systems have been identified, the actual mechanisms of protein secretion are poorly understood.

A subset of the type III secretion components forms a supramolecular structure known as the needle complex that spans the bacterial envelope. This “organic nanosyringe” is thought to serve as a conduit or channel for the passage of secreted proteins through the bacterial envelope on their route to the host-cell cytosol. Because the secretion of bacterial effectors is central to virulence in these organisms, studying their export apparatus is key to understanding type III secretion systems.

Bacteria are constantly evolving and exchanging mechanisms to resist antibiotics, so there is a great need for novel pharmacological interventions in bacterial infection. Dr. Stebbins’s lab is interested in using information gleaned from experiments to design a novel class of antimicrobial agents that specifically target bacterial virulence mechanisms.

Dr. Stebbins has solved the structures of numerous medically relevant proteins, including the cancer-related Von Hippel-Lindau tumor suppressor, the oncogenic chaperone Hsp90 and a growing number of bacterial toxins. His research led to the first structural renderings of cytolethal distending toxin (a widespread genotoxin found in a number of disease-causing bacteria), AvrPtoB (a bacterial mimic of host E3 ubiquitin ligases) and YpkA (a critical virulence factor from the plague pathogen) and the first structural information of the virulence factor CagA of Helicobacter pylori. The structures he has identified can be used to determine how the pathogenic molecules might be most vulnerable to deactivation and are therefore effective targets for drug therapy. 


Dr. Stebbins received his bachelor’s degree in physics from Oberlin College in 1992. After working for a year as a graduate fellow in the physics department at Stony Brook University and another year as a research assistant in Seth A. Darst’s Laboratory of Molecular Biophysics at Rockefeller, he continued his graduate research in molecular biophysics. He received his Ph.D. in biochemistry and structural biology in 1999 from Cornell University’s Weill Graduate School of Medical Sciences. Dr. Stebbins did his postdoctoral work in microbial pathogenesis at the Yale University School of Medicine and then moved to Rockefeller in 2001 when he was appointed assistant professor and head of the Laboratory of Structural Microbiology. He was named associate professor in 2006.

Dr. Stebbins received the American Society for Microbiology’s ICAAC Young Investigator Award in 2004 and the Molecular Structure Corporation’s Future Investigator Award in 2000. He was awarded the Julian R. Rachele Prize from Cornell’s Weill Graduate School of Medical Sciences in 1999. He is the recipient of several governmental and private awards, including the EUREKA award from the National Institutes of Health to explore potential therapeutic uses for the bacterial nanosyringe.

Dr. Stebbins is a faculty member in the David Rockefeller Graduate Program, the Tri-Institutional M.D.-Ph.D. Program and the Tri-Institutional Ph.D. Program in Chemical Biology.

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