The work is led by Dr. Christopher Nomura of the college’s Department of Chemistry, who discovered that a simple protein molecule can interrupt the process bacteria use to move, eat, attach to surfaces, and communicate with one another or, in other words, to become potentially harmful.
“This is fundamentally a new way to think about blocking bacteria from becoming virulent,” Nomura said.
Exposing bacteria to the synthetic protein disrupts the developmental sequence that is common among such organisms, he said. This gives the process the potential to work against an array of bacteria including those that threaten patients with certain illnesses, such as cystic fibrosis, stubborn strains that commonly affect hospital patients and strains that occur in desert environments and prove troublesome for U.S. troops serving in Afghanistan or similar arid environments.
The college is seeking to patent the process.
Nomura’s research group focuses on the synthesis and properties of eco-friendly, biologically based materials, in particular the production of biobased polymers that can be used to make biodegradable plastics. He and his postdoctoral researcher, Dr. Benjamin Lundgren, were working on experiments in that realm when they overproduced some proteins that they thought would increase the expression of genes to produce the bioplastic materials. But instead of making the bacteria produce large quantities of plastics, the protein had the opposite effect.
Nomura began to investigate the chemistry behind the startling development and discovered that specific proteins can attach themselves to the bacterial DNA in a manner that essentially prevents the organism from expressing the information contained within its genes and results in short circuiting the ability of bacteria to respond to changes in their environment.
The antimicrobial process has an added advantage over traditional antibiotics currently in use: It will be extremely difficult for bacteria to do an end run around the process by simply mutating. Since the protein targets hundreds of genes simultaneously, a corresponding mutation would also involve hundreds of changes. Traditional antibiotics attack only one aspect of the bacteria’s development, making mutation a simpler task.
“Basically, we’re interrupting the flow of genetic information in the cell, in effect ‘hacking’ the program of the bacterial cell,” Nomura said. “If we can fundamentally control the mechanism of gene expression, we can control what the bacteria are capable of doing. We can prevent them from becoming virulent.”
Claire B. Dunn | Newswise
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