An Oddity about Lyme Disease Bacteria: Unlike Any Other Known Life Form, They Don't Require Iron

By Lippsett, Lonny | Oceanus, Fall 2013 | Go to article overview

An Oddity about Lyme Disease Bacteria: Unlike Any Other Known Life Form, They Don't Require Iron


Lippsett, Lonny, Oceanus


Scientists have confirmed that the pathogen that causes Lyme disease can exist without iron, a metal that all other life needs. By substituting manganese for iron to make essential enzymes, the bacteria can elude immune system defenses.

To cause disease, Borrelia burgdorferi requires unusually high levels of manganese, scientists at Johns Hopkins University (JHU), Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), and the University of Texas reported. Their study, published March 2013 in The Journal of Biological Chemistry, may explain some mysteries about why Lyme disease is slow-growing and hard to detect and treat. The findings also open the door to search for new therapies to thwart the bacterium by targeting manganese.

"When we become infected with pathogens, from tuberculosis to yeast infections, the body has natural immunological responses," said Valeria Culotta, a molecular biologist at the JHU Bloomberg School of Public Health. The liver produces hepcidin, a hormone that inhibits iron from being absorbed in the gut and also prevents it from getting into the bloodstream. "We become anemic, which is one reason we feel terrible, but it effectively starves pathogens of iron they need to grow and survive," she said.

Borrelia, with no need for iron, has evolved to evade this defense mechanism. In 2000, groundbreaking research on Borrelia's genome by James Posey and Frank Gherardini at the University of Georgia showed that the bacterium has no genes that code to make iron-containing proteins and typically does not accumulate any detectable iron.

Culotta's lab at JHU investigates what she called "metal-trafficking" in organisms--the biochemical mechanisms that cells and pathogens such as Borrelia use to acquire and manipulate metal ions for their biological purposes.

"If Borrelia doesn't use iron, what does it use?" Culotta asked.

To find out, Culotta joined forces with WHOI chemist Mak Saito. He was intrigued because of the high incidence of Lyme disease on Cape Cod, where WHOI is located, and because he had developed new techniques to explore metalloproteins in marine life. …

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