Bacteria use chemical harpoons to hold on tight to their hosts

June 2, 2015
Bacteria use chemical harpoons to hold on tight to their hosts

The global threat of widespread bacterial resistance to antibiotics is one of the greatest challenges facing science and medicine.

The breakthrough discovery of bacterial "chemical harpoons" could pave the way for a new approach to treating bacterial infections by "disarming" instead of trying to kill them with antibiotics. These chemical harpoons can be compared to a superglue, whereas all previously known bacterial binding mechanisms can be likened to weak adhesives that require large contact areas for strong binding.

New research led by the University of St Andrews and the John Innes Centre and published today in the scientific journal eLife reveals how Streptococcus pyogenes, the cause of many infections ranging from the common strep throat to the life-threatening "flesh-eating disease", use chemical harpoons to attach themselves to the body.

Importantly, this tactic is shared by many other bacteria that infect humans, such as Streptococcus pneumoniae, the most common cause of pneumonia in adults, and Clostridium difficile, notorious for causing severe gut infections in hospitalised patients.

The study was funded by the Medical Research Council (MRC) and led by Dr Uli Schwarz-Linek, structural biologist of the Biomedical Sciences Research Complex at St Andrews, and Dr Mark Banfield, John Innes Centre in Norwich, in collaboration with Professor Manfred Rohde (Helmholtz Center for Infection Research, Braunschweig, Germany).

"Among the weaponry of bacteria are protein molecules within hair-like structures displayed on their surfaces," said Dr Uli Schwarz-Linek.

"These serve the important purpose of allowing bacteria to cling to host tissues, such as the cells lining the lung or the gut. We have discovered how bacteria use surface proteins to achieve this important step in infections using a surprising and particularly efficient method.

"I believe these findings may significantly change our view of how bacteria colonise their hosts. Our discoveries open an avenue for the development of molecules that can deactivate the chemical harpoons and therefore prevent bacteria from gaining a foothold in the body. This is of great interest since it concerns a topic of the highest possible relevance for our society - the fight against bacterial infections."

Dr Mark Banfield from the John Innes Centre, who co-led the study, said: "It has been very exciting to build on our initial discovery of the unusual bond these bacteria make with their host and to now appreciate how that bond works – all enabled through international collaborative research. Further, using the powerful X-rays available at Diamond Light Source, the UK's synchrotron facility, we were able to visualise this bacteria/host interaction at the atomic level."

Dr Des Walsh, Head of Infections and Immunity at the Medical Research Council, said: "Before we can develop new ways of fighting antimicrobial resistance (AMR), we need to fully understand how bacteria survive. It is exciting that MRC-funded researchers have discovered a unique insight into how bacteria invade and seize healthy tissue. We recently awarded an additional £5m towards AMR research, and we will continue to support the best, collaborative research that explores new and promising ways to solve the challenge."

Explore further: Pheromones produced by gut bacteria found to kill resistant variants of its own kind

More information: "An internal thioester in a pathogen surface protein mediates covalent host binding." eLife, DOI: dx.doi.org/10.7554/eLife.06638

Related Stories

Could an HIV drug beat strep throat, flesh-eating bacteria?

February 25, 2015

With antibiotic resistance on the rise, scientists are looking for innovative ways to combat bacterial infections. The pathogen that causes conditions from strep throat to flesh-eating disease is among them, but scientists ...

Recommended for you

Typhoid fever toxin has a sweet tooth

December 11, 2017

Although the insidious bacterium Salmonella typhi has been around for centuries, very little is actually known about its molecular mechanisms. A new study from researchers at the College of Veterinary Medicine addresses this ...

Researchers develop powerful new method for microbiome analysis

December 11, 2017

Scientists from the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, Sema4, and collaborating institutions New York University and the University of Florida today published a report detailing their new, more accurate method for identifying ...

Yeast can be engineered to create protein pharmaceuticals

December 11, 2017

It took several years, but a research team headed by Professor Jens Nielsen at Chalmers University of Technology has finally succeeded in mapping out the complex metabolism of yeast cells. The breakthrough, recently published ...

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

xstos
not rated yet Jun 02, 2015
I wonder if beneficial bacteria (i.e. of the gut) do this and how to differentiate between bad bacteria and good bacteria...

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.