Robert K. Ernst, PhD

Robert (Bob) K. Ernst, Ph.D., is the Dr. Paul and Mrs. Jean Corcoran Endowed Professor and Chair of the Department of Microbial Pathogenesis in the School of Dentistry and an Adjunct Professor in the School of Medicine. He is also a University of Maryland, Baltimore Distinguished University Professor.

He earned his undergraduate degree in Biology at the State University of New York at Oswego and his PhD in Microbiology at the University of Virginia in the laboratories of Dr. David Rekosh and Dr. Marie Louise Hammarskjold. His post-doctoral research work in Dr. Samuel Miller’s laboratory at the University of Washington focused on understanding the role of bacterial membrane lipids, specifically lipopolysaccharide in altering and defending against host innate immune recognition and killing mechanisms. Prior to joining the Department of Microbial Pathogenesis in 2008, he was a Research Associate Professor in the Department of Medicine, Division of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the University of Washington.

Dr. Ernst’s laboratory has been at the forefront of innovative research studying the molecular basis and adaptive significance of modifications to the structure of lipopolysaccharide (LPS). He specifically focuses 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. He has 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 and for the rapid identification of pathogens directly from complex biological fluids, such as blood and urine, without the need for ex vivo amplification using mass spectrometry.


Dr. Bob Ernst, PhD

Professor and Chair, Department of Microbial Pathogenesis, University of Maryland School of Dentistry

Adjunct Professor, Department of Microbiology and Immunology, University of Maryland School of Medicine

650 W. Baltimore Street – 8 South, Baltimore, Maryland 21201

Office 9205; Laboratory 9413

Telephone: 410-706-3622

Fax: 410-706-0193

Laboratory: 410-706-6112

Main Office: 410-706-7090


Coordinator and Instructor, MICP 521I - Infectious Diseases, University of Maryland, Baltimore. Fall, 2009 – present.

Coordinator and Instructor, GPLS 710 – Microbial Pathogenesis, University of Maryland, Baltimore. Fall, 2012 – present.

Instructor, Host Defenses and Infectious Diseases, University of Maryland, Baltimore. Fall, 2012 – present.

Instructor,  GPLS 635 – Bacterial Genetics, University of Maryland, Baltimore. Fall 2009 - present.

Grant Support


“Protection Against Gram-Negative Sepsis Conferred by Lipid A-Based Structural Variants”, NIH/SAT, MPI, R01AI123820, 2016/09/01 – 2020/08/31, Goal - Use an evidence-based approach to design ASLA therapeutics for sepsis treatment while dramatically improving the understanding of the lipid A:TLR4 SAR, leading to novel sepsis treatments.

“Anti-septic LPS Molecules Engineered Using Bacterial Enzyme Combinatorial Chemistry (BECC)”, University of Maryland Ventures Seed Grant Funding, PI, 2016/05/01-2017/12/31. Goal - Screen anti-sepsis molecules using a dissemination model of bacterial sepsis and a CLP mouse model of polymicrobial sepsis.

“Role of caspase-11 in innate immunity”, NIH, co-PI (Miao – UNC), R01 AI119073, 2015/04/01- 2020/02/28, Goal - Provide the laboratory of Dr. Miao’s laboratory with unlimited amounts of highly purified lipid A molecules with defined structures, characterized by gas chromatography and mass spectrometry to evaluate for caspase-11 activity.

“Colistin-resistant Acinetobacter baumannii”. NIH. Co-PI (Doi – UPitt), R01AI104895, 2014/01/01-2018/01/01, Goal - To structurally identify factors of LPS that result in colistin-resistance in Acinetobacter baumannii.

“MS diagnostic bacterial identification library”, NIH, MPI (Goodlett – UMB), R01GM111066, 2014/01/01-2018/01/01, Goal - Establish a rapid, small scale extraction procedure for lipids isolated from the membranes of Gram positive and negative bacteria and fungal species for rapid identification.

“Immunotherapeutic potential of rationally-designed toll like receptor 4 (TLR4) mimetics using Pseudomonas and RSV antigens”, MedImmune/U of Maryland Joint Research Grant. PI, 2014/01/01-2018/01/01, Goal – Identify novel TLR4 adjuvants using bacterial enzymatic combinatorial chemistry (BECC).

“Testing of novel TLR4 agonists for cancer”. MedImmune, PI, 2017/09/01-2018/06/01, Goal – Evaluate novel TLR4 adjuvants produced using BECC to adjuvant cancer vaccines. 

Pending Grants

“Novel Vaccine For Multidrug-Resistant Gram-negative Bacterial Infections”, NIH, MPI (Cross – UMB), R21 AI135561, 2017/10/01 – 2019/09/30, Goal- Produce an intrinsically-adjuvanted, genetically-detoxified LOS-based vaccine that generates antibodies to a highly conserved epitope(s).

“Adjuvant development of the TLR4 ligand, BECC438”, NIH, PI, HHS-NIH-NIAID-BAA2017, 2017/10/01 – 2022/09/30, Goal - Develop the adjuvant potential of BECC438, a rationally designed and engineered TLR4-based ligand, and evaluate it for preclinical testing with three established immunogenic vaccine antigens.