Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:


What bacteria don't know can hurt them

Interfering with the ability of biofilm-forming bacteria to sense starvation increases their susceptibility to antibiotics

Many infections, even those caused by antibiotic-sensitive bacteria, resist treatment. This paradox has vexed physicians for decades, and makes some infections impossible to cure.

A key cause of this resistance is that bacteria become starved for nutrients during infection. Starved bacteria resist killing by nearly every type of antibiotic, even ones they have never been exposed to before.

What produces starvation-induced antibiotic resistance, and how can it be overcome? In a paper appearing this week in Science, researchers report some surprising answers.

"Bacteria become starved when they exhaust nutrient supplies in the body, or if they live clustered together in groups know as biofilms," said the lead author of the paper, Dr. Dao Nguyen, an assistant professor of medicine at McGill University.

Biofilms are clusters of bacteria encased in a slimy coating, and can be found both in the natural environment as well as in human tissues where they cause disease. For example, biofilm bacteria grow in the scabs of chronic wounds, and the lungs of patients with cystic fibrosis. Bacteria in biofilms tolerate high levels of antibiotics without being killed.

"A chief cause of the resistance of biofilms is that bacteria on the outside of the clusters have the first shot at the nutrients that diffuse in," said Dr. Pradeep Singh, associate professor of medicine and microbiology at the University of Washington in Seattle, the senior author of the study. "This produces starvation of the bacteria inside clusters, and severe resistance to killing."

Starvation was previously thought to produce resistance because most antibiotics target cellular functions needed for growth. When starved cells stop growing, these targets are no longer active. This effect could reduce the effectiveness of many drugs.

"While this idea is appealing, it presents a major dilemma," Nguyen noted. "Sensitizing starved bacteria to antibiotics could require stimulating their growth, and this could be dangerous during human infections."

Nguyen and Singh explored an alternative mechanism.

Microbiologists have long known that when bacteria sense that their nutrient supply is running low, they issue a chemical alarm signal. The alarm tells the bacteria to adjust their metabolism to prepare for starvation. Could this alarm also turn on functions that produce antibiotic resistance?

To test this idea, the team engineered bacteria in which the starvation alarm was inactivated, and then measured antibiotic resistance in experimental conditions in which bacteria were starved. To their amazement, bacteria unable to sense starvation were thousands of times more sensitive to killing than those that could, even though starvation arrested growth and the activity of antibiotic targets.

"That experiment was a turning point," Singh said. "It told us that the resistance of starved bacteria was an active response that could be blocked. It also indicated that starvation-induced protection only occurred if bacteria were aware that nutrients were running low."

With the exciting result in hand, the researchers turned to two key questions. First does the starvation alarm produce resistance during actual infections? To test this the team examined naturally starved bacteria, biofilms, isolates taken from patients, and bacterial infections in mice. Sure enough, in all cases the bacteria unable to sense starvation were far easier to kill.

The second question was about the mechanism of the effect. How does starvation sensing produce such profound antibiotic resistance?

Again, the results were surprising.

Instead of well-described resistance mechanisms, like pumps that expel antibiotics from bacterial cells, the researchers found that the bacteria's protective mechanism defended them against toxic forms of oxygen, called radicals. This mechanism jives with new findings showing that antibiotics kill by generating these toxic radicals.

The findings suggest new approaches to improve treatment for a wide range of infections.

"Discovering new antibiotics has been challenging," Nguyen said. "One way to improve infection treatment is to make the drugs we already have work better. Our experiments suggest that antibiotic efficacy could be increased by disrupting key bacterial functions that have no obvious connection to antibiotic activity."

The work also highlights the critical advantage of being able to sense environmental conditions, even for single-celled organisms like bacteria. Cells unaware of their starvation were not protected, even though they ran out of nutrients and stopped growth. This proves again that, even for bacteria, "what you don't know can hurt you."

The Burroughs Welcome Fund, the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, and the Canadian Institutes for Health Research supported this research.

The results are contained in the Science article, "Active starvation responses mediate antibiotic tolerance in biofilms and nutrient-limited bacteria."

In addition to Nguyen and Singh, the researchers on the study were Amruta Joshi-Datar, Elizabeth Bauerle, Karlyn Beer, and Richard Siehnel of the Departments of Medicine and of Microbiology at the UW, James Schafhauser of McGill University, Francois Lepine of INRS Armand Frappier in Canada, Oyebode Olakanmi and Bradley E. Britigan of the University of Cincinnati, and Yun Wang of Northwestern University.

Leila Gray | EurekAlert!
Further information:

More articles from Life Sciences:

nachricht Strong, steady forces at work during cell division
20.10.2016 | University of Massachusetts at Amherst

nachricht Disturbance wanted
20.10.2016 | Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine in the Helmholtz Association

All articles from Life Sciences >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: New 3-D wiring technique brings scalable quantum computers closer to reality

Researchers from the Institute for Quantum Computing (IQC) at the University of Waterloo led the development of a new extensible wiring technique capable of controlling superconducting quantum bits, representing a significant step towards to the realization of a scalable quantum computer.

"The quantum socket is a wiring method that uses three-dimensional wires based on spring-loaded pins to address individual qubits," said Jeremy Béjanin, a PhD...

Im Focus: Scientists develop a semiconductor nanocomposite material that moves in response to light

In a paper in Scientific Reports, a research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute describes a novel light-activated phenomenon that could become the basis for applications as diverse as microscopic robotic grippers and more efficient solar cells.

A research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) has developed a revolutionary, light-activated semiconductor nanocomposite material that can be used...

Im Focus: Diamonds aren't forever: Sandia, Harvard team create first quantum computer bridge

By forcefully embedding two silicon atoms in a diamond matrix, Sandia researchers have demonstrated for the first time on a single chip all the components needed to create a quantum bridge to link quantum computers together.

"People have already built small quantum computers," says Sandia researcher Ryan Camacho. "Maybe the first useful one won't be a single giant quantum computer...

Im Focus: New Products - Highlights of COMPAMED 2016

COMPAMED has become the leading international marketplace for suppliers of medical manufacturing. The trade fair, which takes place every November and is co-located to MEDICA in Dusseldorf, has been steadily growing over the past years and shows that medical technology remains a rapidly growing market.

In 2016, the joint pavilion by the IVAM Microtechnology Network, the Product Market “High-tech for Medical Devices”, will be located in Hall 8a again and will...

Im Focus: Ultra-thin ferroelectric material for next-generation electronics

'Ferroelectric' materials can switch between different states of electrical polarization in response to an external electric field. This flexibility means they show promise for many applications, for example in electronic devices and computer memory. Current ferroelectric materials are highly valued for their thermal and chemical stability and rapid electro-mechanical responses, but creating a material that is scalable down to the tiny sizes needed for technologies like silicon-based semiconductors (Si-based CMOS) has proven challenging.

Now, Hiroshi Funakubo and co-workers at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, in collaboration with researchers across Japan, have conducted experiments to...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>



Event News

#IC2S2: When Social Science meets Computer Science - GESIS will host the IC2S2 conference 2017

14.10.2016 | Event News

Agricultural Trade Developments and Potentials in Central Asia and the South Caucasus

14.10.2016 | Event News

World Health Summit – Day Three: A Call to Action

12.10.2016 | Event News

Latest News

Innovative technique for shaping light could solve bandwidth crunch

20.10.2016 | Physics and Astronomy

Finding the lightest superdeformed triaxial atomic nucleus

20.10.2016 | Physics and Astronomy

NASA's MAVEN mission observes ups and downs of water escape from Mars

20.10.2016 | Physics and Astronomy

More VideoLinks >>>