March 20, 2013
Superbugs may have a soft spot
A cluster of E. coli bacteria, magnified 10,000 times
The overuse of antibiotics has created strains of bacteria resistant to medication, making the diseases they cause difficult to treat or even deadly. But now a research team at the University has identified a weakness in at least one superbug that scientists may be able to medically exploit.
Biologists Gloria Culver at Rochester and Keith Connolly, now at Harvard University, thought one key to stopping the bacteria may lie with proteins, so they studied the mechanism behind the development of bacterial ribosomes—the cell’s protein-manufacturing machine. “We targeted the ribosomes in our research because cells and organisms can’t live if they don’t make proteins, and they can’t make proteins if their ribosomes aren’t functioning properly,” says Culver, professor and chair of the Department of Biology.
Culver and Connolly specifically worked with cultures of E. coli, a bacteria commonly found in the intestines. While E. coli is usually harmless, some strains are resistant to antibiotics and can cause serious food poisoning.
Culver and Connolly discovered that two proteins already present in E. coli cells—RbfA and KsgA—need to be in balance with each other in order for ribosomes to function. If those proteins are present in the wrong concentrations, the ribosomes will not mature properly and will be unable to produce proteins, leading to the death of the cells. The findings were published in the journal Molecular Microbiology.
Culver says the next goal in the research is to determine an effective way to disrupt the balance of the key proteins. Crucially, RbfA does not exist in humans. “That may make it possible to kill E. coli without having a harmful effect on people,” Culver says.
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