Stripping away an infection's armour

January 12, 2017, Massey University
Professor Bernd Rehm. Credit: Massey University

A Massey professor of microbiology has identified a protein that could help fight serious infections in elderly, cancer, HIV and cystic fibrosis patients.

The research focused on a glue-like substance, called biofilm, which allows bacteria to stick to materials and form a . Biofilms are found everywhere, like the plaque on your teeth, but while most are harmless, some can be deadly.

The study focused on the bacterium known as Pseudomonas aeruginosa which causes severe wound and lung infections in patients with weak immune systems. The bacteria works by attaching itself to a person's wound or lung tissue and producing a dense and slimy alginate biofilm, where bacteria can embed themselves and stay protected from the body's immune system.

Professor Bernd Rehm of Massey's Institute of Fundamental Sciences, led the study, and says they have found a way to strip the protective layer away so the bacteria can be attacked. "Before this discovery the bacteria was effectively able to take hold of patients with weak immune systems and doctors could do little but sit by and watch it attack the body and spread.

"The bacteria is abundant in our environment and remains relatively harmless to healthy individuals, until carried to the vulnerable, for instance into hospitals, who cannot keep it out. It is so hard to fight, because it is remarkably resistant against a broad range of antibiotics," says Professor Rehm.

The breakthrough comes with the identification of a protein that may be able to stop the biofilm latching on to tissues and causing an infection, but also may help the body stop the bacteria spreading to other parts of the body and causing a chronic infection.

"The protein influences the chemical composition of the , and by hijacking that protein we can stop it from taking a hold or spreading," Professor Rehm says. "The work improves our understanding of bacterial alginate production and provides new knowledge for alginate production and disease control."

Professor Rehm says the breakthrough may also have other implications for biofilm, which appears naturally in materials such as seaweed. "In the right context, they can be industrially and medically important and can be widely used in food, textile and pharmaceutical industries. The research may aid in improvements to medical products like alginate dressings, which currently use biofilm from the seaweed, but due to seasonal variations in this seaweed the right seaweed is often hard to find."

Explore further: Paradigm shift: 'We need to study lumps of bacteria'

More information: Yajie Wang et al. Biological function of a polysaccharide degrading enzyme in the periplasm, Scientific Reports (2016). DOI: 10.1038/srep31249

Related Stories

Paradigm shift: 'We need to study lumps of bacteria'

March 23, 2016

New research from the University of Copenhagen reveals that bacteria which agglutinate before entering the body are far more resistant than single-celled bacteria. This may be the cause of chronic infections.

Protein disrupts infectious biofilms

December 8, 2016

Many infectious pathogens are difficult to treat because they develop into biofilms, layers of metabolically active but slowly growing bacteria embedded in a protective layer of slime, which are inherently more resistant ...

Oxygen can wake up dormant bacteria for antibiotic attacks

December 8, 2016

Bacterial resistance does not come just through adaptation to antibiotics, sometimes the bacteria simply go to sleep. An international team of researchers is looking at compounds that attack bacteria's ability to go dormant ...

No hiding place for infecting bacteria

March 16, 2009

Scientists in Colorado have discovered a new approach to prevent bacterial infections from taking hold. Writing in the Journal of Medical Microbiology, Dr Quinn Parks and colleagues describe how they used enzymes against ...

Recommended for you

Fish-inspired material changes color using nanocolumns

March 20, 2019

Inspired by the flashing colors of the neon tetra fish, researchers have developed a technique for changing the color of a material by manipulating the orientation of nanostructured columns in the material.


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.