Science Market Update

WUSTL Microbiologists Zombify Bacteria to Fight Infection

Posted by Sam Asher on Thu, Sep 25, 2014

When it comes to fighting bacteria, it’s all about understanding the enemy. Bacteria are especially good at rapidly dividing; in fact, they are more efficient than cells at self-replication. Microbiologists at the Washington University, St. Louis decided to go straight to the root of the problem and find out how to turn bacteria into zombies that can’t reproduce.

dsc_1050The first step in shutting down bacterial replication was determining just why bacteria are so good at it, instead of just taking the fact for granted. Petra Levin (left), associate professor of biology at WUSTL, notes that “people spoke of the bacterial cell cycle as somehow magically coordinated even though there was no mechanism for doing so. Things just somehow worked out fine even though no control system had been identified.”

Levin and her group extensively studied reproducing bacteria and found that their secret lies in multiplying in rounds. That is, they start by copying a set of DNA, but instead of waiting for self-division to begin the next round of copying, they initiate multiple rounds of DNA copying before the first one finishes. This allows bacteria to perform seemingly impossible feats of replication: for instance, it takes bacteria forty minutes to copy its own DNA, but they can divide once every twenty minutes.

heidi1With this new understanding of the process of bacteria reproduction, the Levin lab set out to find ways to deter it. One of her doctoral students, Heidi Arjes(right), found that bacteria don’t like to be interrupted in the middle of their replication. If something stops the bacteria mid-copy, the bacteria employs a self-preserving method to avoid producing children with scrambled DNA. In particular, they turn into “zombies” that are incapable of reproducing. Arjes believes that a drug tailored to disrupt the DNA copying process would be a very effective way to stop bacterial infection.

 “Most importantly,” she says in a WUSTL article, “if a bacterium has encountered a terminal cell-cycle arrest, it cannot recover even after the drug has been metabolized.” That is, it has no way of reproducing again regardless of how much time goes by, ensuring that infection stops dead in its tracks. Arjes adds that the proposed drug is a good alternative for antibiotics because bacteria can’t develop a resistance to it without changing their method of reproduction.

Levin and Arjes receive funding for their research partially from grants from the NIH. For a more detailed report on research funding and university grants for the Washington University at St. Louis, read our WUSTL Funding Statistics Report:

WashU  Funding

Biotechnology Calendar, Inc. will be visiting Washington University in St. Louis next on March 20th, 2015 for our St. Louis BioResearch Product Faire™ event, held annually on the WUSTL campus. This show is an excellent opportunity for life science scientists and laboratory equipment suppliers to network and discuss their research need and solutions. If you can’t make the St. Louis BioResearchs Product Faire™ event, not to worry: you can check our 2014 show schedule  and our 2015 show schedule for an upcoming show in your area. 

Tags: Washington University St. Louis, Missouri, WashU, Microbiology, 5-Star Program

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