Magazine article Science & Spirit

Deadly Bacteria Meets Birth Control

Magazine article Science & Spirit

Deadly Bacteria Meets Birth Control

Article excerpt

Biologists take many lines of attack in the "war on bacteria," and the story of a laboratory at the University of North Carolina illustrates how a research strategy can lead to unexpected results. In this case, the research team found that a common medicine can impose "birth control" on some dangerous bacteria, and kill others as well.

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Four researchers in the laboratory of biochemistry professor Matt Redinbo wanted to find a way to stop the spread of bacteria that had grown "drug resistant," or immune to the effects of standard antibiotics.

Although such drug research on killing bacteria often is done by randomly exposing it to natural or synthetic substances to see what happens, the North Carolina team worked "bottom up." They looked for a particular molecular structure on the common E. coli bacterium to see if they could stop it from working by inserting a chemical "plug" at a particular location.

The structure they chose was the relaxase enzyme, or protein, that is known to help drug-resistant bacteria transfer their DNA to other bacteria. Most bacteria multiply by simple cell division, but the DNA transfer by surface contact--called "conjugal" transfer--also multiplies bacteria that antibiotics cannot kill. In that conjugal transfer, "relaxase is the gatekeeper, and it is also the Achilles' heel of the resistance process," Redinbo said of their molecular target.

It was already known that some chemicals interrupted the relaxase handling of DNA. But the mechanism was not understood, the researchers said in the June issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. But now, with the exact mechanism of relaxase in mind, the researchers exposed it to a bisphosphonate, a safe chemical already used to treat bone loss. …

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