Bacteria use 'toxic darts' to disable each other, scientists say

Nov 18, 2010
This shows CDI+ E. coli bacteria interacting with target bacteria lacking a CDI system. Credit: Stephanie K. Aoki

(PhysOrg.com) -- In nature, it's a dog-eat-dog world, even in the realm of bacteria. Competing bacteria use "toxic darts" to disable each other, according to a new study by UC Santa Barbara biologists. Their research is published in the journal Nature.

"The discovery of toxic darts could eventually lead to new ways to control disease-causing pathogens," said Stephanie K. Aoki, first author and postdoctoral fellow in UCSB's Department of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology (MCDB). "This is important because resistance to antibiotics is on the rise."

Second author Elie J. Diner, a graduate student in biomolecular sciences and engineering, said: "First we need to learn the rules of this bacterial combat. It turns out that there are many ways to kill your neighbors; carry a wide range of toxic darts."

The scientists studied many , including some important pathogens. They found that have stick-like proteins on their surfaces, with toxic dart tips. These darts are delivered to competing neighbor cells when the bacteria touch. This process of touching and injecting a toxic dart is called "contact dependent growth inhibition," or CDI.

Some targets have a biological shield. Bacteria protected by an immunity protein can resist the enemy's disabling toxic darts. This immunity protein is called "contact dependent growth inhibition immunity." The protein inactivates the toxic dart.

The UCSB team discovered a wide variety of potential toxic-tip proteins carried by bacteria cells –– nearly 50 distinct types have been identified so far, according to Christopher Hayes, co-author an associate professor at MCDB. Each bacterial cell must also have immunity to its own toxic dart. Otherwise, carrying the ammunition would cause cell suicide.

Surprisingly, when a bacterial cell is attacked –– and has no immunity protein –– it may not die. However, it often ceases to grow. The cell is inactivated, inhibited from growth. Similarly, many antibiotics do not kill bacteria; they only prevent the bacteria from growing. Then the body flushes out the dormant cells.

This is an illustration of contact dependent growth inhibition. Credit: Stephanie K. Aoki

Some toxic tips appear to function inside the targeted bacteria by cutting up enemy RNA so the cell can no longer synthesize protein and grow. Other toxic tips operate by cutting up enemy DNA, which prevents replication of the cell.

"Our data indicate that CDI systems are also present in a broad range of bacteria, including important plant and animal pathogens such as E. coli which causes urinary tract infections, and Yersinia species, including the causative agent of plague," said senior author David Low, professor of MCDB. "Bacteria may be using these systems to compete with one another in the soil, on plants, and in animals. It's an amazingly diverse world."

The team studied the bacteria responsible for soft rot in potatoes, called Dickeya dadantii. This bacteria also invades chicory leaves, chrisanthemums, and other vegetables and plants.

Explore further: Scientists unlock secrets of protein produced by disease-causing fungus

Related Stories

In decision to grow, bacteria follow the crowd

Oct 30, 2008

When it comes to the decision to wake up and grow, bacterial spores "listen in" to find out what their neighbors are doing and then they follow the crowd, according to a new report in the October 31st issue of the journal ...

Recommended for you

Revealing camouflaged bacteria

2 hours ago

A research team at the Biozentrum of the University of Basel has discovered an protein family that plays a central role in the fight against the bacterial pathogen Salmonella within the cells. The so cal ...

User comments : 1

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

El_Nose
not rated yet Nov 18, 2010
Now this is great research --- but overuse of this as a medicne will just ensure that 100 yrs from now the only bacteria left are the ones that are immune to this mechanism and we are in a worse boat than before.

More news stories

Revealing camouflaged bacteria

A research team at the Biozentrum of the University of Basel has discovered an protein family that plays a central role in the fight against the bacterial pathogen Salmonella within the cells. The so cal ...

How kids' brain structures grow as memory develops

Our ability to store memories improves during childhood, associated with structural changes in the hippocampus and its connections with prefrontal and parietal cortices. New research from UC Davis is exploring ...