By Wendy Sarubbi | September 13, 2011 9:35 am

Scientists, including a new researcher at the College of Medicine’s Burnett School of Biomedical Sciences, have discovered that bacteria like e. coli and salmonella have a sneaky way of making minor alterations to their genes to boost their chances for infection.

The discovery, featured in the Aug. 14 issue of Nature Chemical Biology, shows how bacteria make tweaks in their genes and their proteins to gain strength.

The research team includes research scientist Dr. Herve Roy, who joined the Burnett school this month after conducting research at Ohio State University Professor Michael Ibba’s lab.

“Mother Nature tinkers a lot,” Dr. Roy said. “Our recent findings illustrate that new proteins in living organisms often evolve from older pre-existing ones and that evolution updates biochemical mechanisms of living cells by tweaking them a little by applying molecular patches.”

The precise role of one protein in bacteria, EF-P, remains a mystery but this team found that it plays an essential role in the virulence of salmonella enterica typhimurium, a common foodborne pathogen causing diarrhea, fever, and abdominal cramps, and occasionally lifetime chronic arthritis. Salmonella also accounts for about 400 deaths each year in the United States.

EF-P is known to play a role in protein biosynthesis which is a keystone mechanism present in all organisms. The team’s research identified a modification born by EF-P that acts as a molecular patch on protein synthesis. The patch seems to increase the bacteria’s prowess. Interestingly, the modification on EF-P is made by a hijacked protein normally involved in the protein synthesis machinery itself.

In the Nature article, Roy and co-authors identified the chemical nature of the modification that occurs on EF-P. That mechanism could be a potential drug target.

Dr. Roy’s experience and interest in this area is what drew him to the College of Medicine. At the Burnett school, his lab will use National Institutes of Health funding to explore how some other components of the protein synthesis machinery have been hijacked to accomplish alternate cellular processes. For instance, one process utilizes parts of the protein synthesis machinery to modify components of the bacterial membrane. This mechanism increases bacterial resistance to a large spectrum of antibiotics and presents a good avenue for new drugs that could potentially alleviate or cure many infectious diseases.

“That’s why I came to UCF,” he said. “There is a good team of scientists here working in infectious diseases. There is a good opportunity to collaborate and make a difference.”

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