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Bacterial evolution of antibiotic weapons promises new insights for drug makers

Bacterial evolution of antibiotic weapons promises new insights for drug makers
Scientists at Trinity College London analyzed the different ways two distinct bacteria species combat methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA. Photo by Flickr/NIAID

Jan. 9 (UPI) -- Harmful bacteria strains are becoming increasingly resistant to antibiotics, forcing drug makers to scramble to develop new types of antibiotics. But humans aren't the only species that need help fighting off bacteria -- bacteria need protection, too.

By detailing the unique ways bacteria naturally evolve antibiotic weaponry against their adversaries, scientists at Trinity College Dublin have identified new strategies for drug makers looking to develop new types of antibiotics.

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For the new study, published Thursday in the journal Nature Communications, scientists studied how two different bacteria species fight off methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA.

"Specifically, we have discovered how evolution has led two completely different types of bacteria to figure out a way of making two very different antibiotics with which to fend off bacterial neighbors in precisely the same way," senior study author Martin Caffrey, professor of biochemistry and immunology at Trinity, said in a news release. "This is an exquisite example of molecular convergent evolution."

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The two species produce two different antibiotic weapons: cyclic depsipeptide, or globomycin, and macrocyclic lactone, or myxovirescin.

"Remarkably, they achieve the very same end of shutting down the production of key components of the cell envelope in other bacteria. This weapon thereby kills or weakens the other bacteria," Caffrey said.

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In addition to providing microbiologists a better understanding of the chemical evolution within bacterial communities, the latest research has offered drug makers a blueprint for designing new antibiotics.

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Chemical construction maps, or pharmacaphores, help scientists understand the connections between different molecular structures and their corresponding biochemical functions.

"Scientists have recently devoted a lot of effort to tackling open, 'undruggable' targets -- many of which lack the defined binding pockets where drugs can interact specifically to achieve the desired outcome," Caffrey said. "The bacterial cell wall target that takes center stage in our work likewise has an open binding surface but in its case nature has figured out at least two ways of targeting it with very high affinity using the natural antibiotics, globomycin and myxovirescin. And they do so in ways that are, at once, similar and distinct."

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