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Breakthrough in fight against superbugs

Scientists have worked out a key mechanism that protects bacteria against stress in a major discovery that could lead to new ways of killing superbugs C. difficile and MRSA.

The researchers from the Universities of St Andrews and Aberdeen have discovered the mechanism of a pressure-release valve – which helps safeguard bacteria.

The findings of the two teams led by Professor James Naismith (St Andrews) and Professor Ian Booth (Aberdeen), could pave the way for new chemicals to combat potentially deadly bugs.  Possible applications could be as basic as cleansing hospital equipment and wards or helping to make food safer.

All bacteria have tiny channels in their walls which operate like the valve on a pressure cooker – they open to release material when the pressure in a bacterial cell gets too great. If the channel didn¿t open to relieve pressure the bacteria would explode and die.

Professor Naismith explained, “The system is mechanical; the channel senses the pressure inside the bacteria. As a result the channel alters its shape and creates an opening, releasing the pressure. The motion is just like that of a camera iris and being able to see this motion is an amazing discovery.

“Not only is this a major step forward in scientific understanding of a fundamental process in biology but it paves the way for the development of new drugs against bacteria. It is vital to the bacteria that the channel fully closes and only opens at the right times as mistakes either way would be fatal.

“New chemicals designed to forcing channels to stay open or shut, are likely to kill or at the very least, greatly slow down the growth of bacteria. Slowing down the growth gives the body¿s natural defences time to tackle its bacterial invader.”

The work is the culmination of structural studies research at St Andrews combined with molecular studies at Aberdeen. The two groups have been working together for several years, a partnership encouraged by the SULSA (Scottish Universities Life Sciences Alliance) initiative of the Scottish Funding Council.

Professor Booth commented on the partnership, “This was a very demanding project and is down to tremendous team work in both universities. In particular, Wenjiang Wang, Michelle Edwards and Susan Black who performed the crucial experiments.

“Channels in bacteria perform absolutely key roles in cell survival.  We have been able to show how this channel opens and closes.  Understanding how they work will play a major role in inhibiting the survival of bacteria and could have applications as basic as cleansing hospital equipment and wards or helping to make food safer.  These channels are found in MRSA and C. difficile and this knowledge has not yet been exploited.  The future path is to find new chemicals and processes that exploit the importance of the channels to these bacteria.”

The research was carried out with the help of a £1.5m grant from the Wellcome Trust as well as funding from the Medical Research Council, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, Scottish Funding Council and Unilever plc.

The research is published today by the journal Science.

ENDS

NOTE TO EDITORS:

THE RESEARCHERS ARE AVAILABLE FOR INTERVIEW:

PROFESSOR NAISMITH (ST ANDREWS), TEL 01334 463792 / 467245, email naismith@st-andrews.ac.uk

PROFESSOR BOOTH (ABERDEEN),TEL JENNIFER PHILLIPS ON 01224 273174


NOTE TO PICTURE / NEW MEDIA EDITORS


IMAGES ARE AVAILABLE FROM THE PRESS OFFICE ON 01334 467227.

ANIMATIONS WHICH DEMONSTRATE THE CHANNEL OPENING AND CLOSING ARE AVAILABLE TO DOWNLOAD ONLINE AT:

http://speedy.st-and.ac.uk/~naismith/orth.mov
http://speedy.st-and.ac.uk/~naismith/surf.mov
http://speedy.st-and.ac.uk/~naismith/perp.mov

 

Issued jointly by the Universities of Aberdeen and St Andrews.

Contact Gayle Cook, Press Officer (St Andrews), 01334 467227 / 462529, mobile 07900 050 103, or email gec3@st-andrews.ac.uk

Jennifer Phillips (Aberdeen), 01224 273174, email j.phillips@abdn.ac.uk

Ref:  Superbugs 260808

View the latest University press releases at www.st-andrews.ac.uk

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