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Microbes: The Invisible Enemy

Published: July 11, 2009

Scientists working in the microscopic world of germs have discovered how some bacteria protect themselves when threatened or under attack.

The breakthrough finding could lead to new ways to combat hard-to-treat infections of E. coli and Salmonella bacteria (common culprits in food poisonings) as well as Pseudomonas bacteria that often attack those with immune systems weakened by chronic disease and aging.

Painstaking studies at Nevada Cancer Institute (NVCI) in Las Vegas, Nevada, and the University of Aberdeen, Scotland, reveal that protective “channels” in bacteria open only when they need to mount a defense.

“Our next challenge,” says study investigator and professor Dr. Ian Booth of Scotland, “is to design chemicals that fool the bacterium into locking the channel open all the time, which will then impair its growth, or we could lock it shut so it can’t protect itself.”

While the research focused on E. coli, experts say that the protective channel system is common to many microorganisms that cause disease, an increasing number of which are becoming resistant to standard antibiotics.

The pioneering work may have long-reaching impact.

“Discovery of new drugs through the structural analysis of proteins that underlie diseases, including cancer, which are potentially molecular targets for therapeutic intervention, is the primary focus of our research,” explained NVCI professor Dr. Tarmo Roosild, coauthor of the study that was published in the journal Structure.

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