Scientists image molecular machinery never before seen in bacteria

"In the last 20 years, electron cryotomography has allowed us to visualize bacterial cells in an intact, fully-hydrated state, preserving their internal structures," said researcher Catherine Oikonomou.
By Brooks Hays   |   June 13, 2017 at 4:59 PM

June 13 (UPI) -- Scientists have discovered several never before identified bacterial structures -- pieces of molecular machinery.

Researchers identified the new appendages while imaging the bacterial species Prosthecobacter debontii. The discovery prompted researchers to survey more than 15,000 3D images of bacterial cells, representing 88 different species. Their analysis suggests the structures are not unique to Prosthecobacter debontii.

Researchers hope their survey, published this week in the Journal of Bacteriology, will help bacterial cell biologists determine the structures' functionality.

Among the bacteria featuring the newly identified structures are several scientifically significant species including an agent of cholera, carcinogenic bacteria and a strain essential to Earth's nitrogen cycle.

"The study drives home the point that a wealth of information remains to be discovered even about the fraction of bacteria that we know about," Catherine Oikonomou, a research scientist at the California Institute of Technology, said in a news release. "Even well-studied species contain prominent structural features that we didn't know about before, whose function is still unknown."

Improved imaging technology has allowed scientists to render internal cellular structures in high resolution, revealing surprisingly complex molecular machinery.

"In the last 20 years, electron cryotomography has allowed us to visualize bacterial cells in an intact, fully-hydrated state, preserving their internal structures," said Oikonomou.

By studying the macromolecular structures inside bacteria cells, researchers can learn how different strains adapt to a variety of exotic environs.

"Our work underscores the diversity and complexity of bacterial cells," Oikonomou said. "And it reminds us that many structures still remain to be seen."

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