Robert K. Ernst, PhD


Dr. Paul and Mrs. Jean Corcoran Endowed Professor

Professor and Chair, Department of Microbial Pathogenesis

School Affiliation

School of Dentistry


  • Bacterial and Fungal Pathogens
  • Sepsis


The Ernst laboratory been at the forefront of innovative research studying the molecular basis and adaptive significance of modifications to the structure of lipopolysaccharide (LPS). Its focus is on the elucidation of the molecular basis by which Gram-negative bacteria modify the lipid A component of lipopolysaccharide (LPS) and how these alterations affect or circumvent normal host innate immune system responses. LPS is the major surface molecule and pathogenic factor of Gram-negative bacteria. Host immune detection of LPS is extremely sensitive -- such that bloodstream infections can cause a severe complication called endotoxic shock, a major clinical problem leading to about 200,000 deaths in the United States per year. The lab also developed a practical method, bacterial enzymatic combinatorial chemistry (BECC) that can be used to engineer functionally diverse lipid A molecules for use as vaccine adjuvant. This project is supported through a $6.2M NIH NIAID contract to bring one of our BECC molecules to pre-investigational drug status. The work is important given the urgent need for new and more effective vaccines against infectious diseases worldwide. Finally, the Ernst laboratory focuses on the development of new antimicrobials that enhance innate immunity or inhibit bacterial resistance and the establishment of a clinical diagnostic platform for the rapid identification of bacterial and fungal pathogens directly from complex biological fluids. Our diagnostic work led to the establishment in 2016 of Pataigin LLC, which is developing a low-cost, rapid identification platform (BACLIB) that can identify a wide range of bacteria and fungi directly from clinically relevant samples, including blood and urine. In total, since moving his lab from the University of Washington in 2008, he has received more than $20 million in research funding. This work has resulted in over 190 peer-reviewed manuscripts with 17,000 citations. In recognition of his work, Dr. Ernst was named UMB’s 2017 Founders Week Researcher of the Year, as well as UMB’s 2019 Founders Week Entrepreneur of the Year. He was the recipient 2017 UMB Researcher of the Year, 2018 Dr. Mark E. Shirtliff PhD Student Mentor Award (UMB Graduate Program) winner, and 2019 UMB Entrepreneur of the Year. In 2020, he was awarded the inaugural Dr. Paul and Mrs. Jean Corcoran Professorship, and, in 2021, he earned a University System of Maryland Board of Regents Faculty Award for Excellence in Research, the highest honor presented by the board to exemplary faculty members. Additionally, in 2014, he won the Maryland-John Hopkins Alliance Ventures award for his lipid-based bacterial diagnostic platform and 2016 he again won the Maryland-John Hopkins Alliance Ventures award for his anti-sepsis therapeutic platform and Pataigin won the Maryland Department of Commerce Life at the same competition for their advancements in the development of a lipid-based microbial diagnostic platform.

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Tagged: The Future of Health Care   Research and Innovation  

This information was last updated May 17, 2023.