Characterizing a tiny protein—determining its shape and what it does—was the first step taken by Dr. Kirsten Wolthers and her colleagues in their effort to learn more about a very common molecule that is implicated in a wide range of human ailments.
Wolthers used the Canadian Light Source (CLS) at the University of Saskatchewan to study flavodoxin. This protein is produced by all sorts of bacteria and some algae, she explained, including the bacteria associated with influenza, H. pylori, E. coli and even appendicitis.
Of particular interest to the associate professor from the University of British Columbia is the flavodoxin produced by Fusobacterium nucleatum, an oral bacteria found naturally in the human mouth that plays a role in periodontal disease and gingivitis.
“What makes it so interesting is that what’s been emerging in the last 10 years or so are links between F. nucleatum and colorectal cancer and pre-term or stillbirths,” she said. In some studies, mice given oral F. nucleatum have shown a higher-than-normal incidence of pre-term births. Because flavodoxin is known to be essential for the lifecycle of the bacteria, it is seen as a potential target for a controlling growth of the bacterium.
Image: Dr Kirsten Wolthers working in a laboratory.