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Scientists find key to halting bacteria growth

Scientists have worked out how to control a protective mechanism found in many bacteria that helps them grow and stay alive

Scientists at the University of Aberdeen, Nevada Cancer Institute, Las Vegas and the Salk Institute in San Diego, in collaboration with Stuart Conway at the University of Oxford, have worked out how to control a protective mechanism found in many bacteria that helps them grow and stay alive. It is hoped that the findings will aid the future development of new antimicrobial drugs to tackle a range of bacteria that have become more resistant to antibiotics.

Professor Ian Booth, professor of microbiology at the University of Aberdeen's Institute of Medical Sciences, has been researching E.coli for more than 30 years.

He said: "After discovering last year how these protective channels in bacteria worked, our next goal was to devise chemicals that could trick the channel in the bacterium into staying open, slowing its growth, or force it to remain closed, which undermines its defences.

"We have been able to achieve this in a move that is really significant as we see these channels, found in many pathogenic bacteria, as a target for the development of new antimicrobial drugs."

The researchers say that they are able to manipulate the protein or channel that protects E.coli, Salmonella, Legionella, which causes Legionnaires' disease, and Pseudomonas, which can affect cystic fibrosis patients and sufferers of other chronic lung conditions.

All bacteria have channels that aid their survival by protecting them when they are threatened or under attack. In the study, which appears in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA the researchers describe how a synthetic chemical can force the channel to stay open, which then stunts the bacteria's growth. 

The researchers were also able to test their ideas by modifying the channel so that it could be opened or closed by other chemicals.

Dr Stuart Conway, from the department of chemistry at the University of Oxford, said: "We are very excited about applying our chemical tools to the study of fundamental biological problems, which may ultimately allow us to develop new leads for novel antibiotic drugs."

Both studies have been supported by the Wellcome Trust, which has now awarded £1.5m to the Universities of Aberdeen, Oxford and St Andrews to further develop these findings.

6th December 2010

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