“foot-2-foot” interaction sheds light on bacterial conjugation

Bacteria possess mechanisms to establish communication between cells. This is especially important in bacterial conjugation, a process that allows bacteria to share genetic material. This is often used by bacteria to transfer antibiotic resistance genes and other virulence factors to neighbor cells, increasing the antibiotic resistance spread.

Now, a research team of ALBA scientists report the structural mechanism by which two proteins, Rap and Rco, act together to regulate conjugation. Rco is a repressor of conjugation, whereas Rap binds Rco and prevents Rco-mediated conjugation repression, thus resulting in an activation of the conjugation mechanism. The main results of the study show that Rap contains a binding pocket were a short peptide can bind, producing structural changes in Rap that forces its tetramerization, releasing Rco for blocking conjugation. Tetramerization occurs through an interaction that scientists named “foot-2-foot”, which differs significantly from the model proposed for other proteins of the Rap family.

Read more on the ALBA website

Image: RappLS20 tetramerization, side view of the peptide-bound tetramer. The red arrows indicate the loops connecting helices H4 and H5. (C) Zoom of the area around the N-terminus of helix H4, showing the insertion of this helix into the opposite monomer. The homotetramerization caused by the foot-2-foot interactions of the NTDs of RappLS20 provides an explanation for the activation of the RcopLS20 partner. In the absence of the peptide, the NTDs are positioned such that they allow the interaction with RcopLS20. However, upon binding the signaling peptide, the NTDs shift outwards, facilitating the formation of the homotetramer, leading to a change of the interaction surface of the NTDs that is no longer available for interactions with RcopLS20

Helping our immune systems bypass antibiotic resistance

Over 700,000 people die each year due to drug-resistant diseases and this figure could increase to 10 million per year by 2050, according to a 2019 report.

As the search continues for new antibiotics to treat drug-resistant infections, a group of researchers used the Canadian Light Source (CLS) at the University of Saskatchewan to address the problem from a different direction, by trying to weaken the ability of bacteria to develop resistance in the first place.

“The goal is to knock the bacterial cells down in terms of their resistance,” said Dr. Anthony Clarke, Professor and Dean of Science at Wilfrid Laurier University and adjunct professor at the University of Guelph. “We haven’t been successful over the last 30 years in finding new classes of antibiotics so, in the short term, we’re trying to weaken the cells so our own immune system can take over to fight infection.”

The target for his team’s work is peptidoglycan, which gives bacterial cell walls their rigidity. “Think of it as building a brick wall around the bacteria’s cells,” said Clarke. Since peptidoglycan can be broken down by lysozyme, an enzyme that exists in human immune systems, bacteria have developed strategies that block these enzymes by modifying their peptidoglycan, thereby “cementing the bricks in place,” and resisting our defences.

Read more on the Canadian Light Source website

Image: Dr. Clarke inspecting flasks of bacterial cultures in a student laboratory.

Using state-of-the-art nanocarriers to beat bacterial resistance

Novel stabiliser-free cubosomes can transport antimicrobial peptides and promote wound healing

In 2018, in England alone, there were an estimated 61,000 antibiotic resistant infections – a 9% rise on the previous year. Infections that don’t respond to antibiotics have the potential to cause bloodstream infections and may require patients to be admitted to hospital. The numbers of antibiotic-resistant bloodstream infections rose by a third between 2014 and 2018. The rise in antibiotic-resistant bacteria is a growing concern worldwide, prompting a search for new antibiotics and alternative strategies for fighting bacteria. One promising approach is the design of lipid-based antimicrobial nanocarriers. However, most of the polymer-stabilised nanocarriers are cytotoxic. In work recently published in  Advanced Functional Materials,  a team of Swiss researchers designed a novel, stabiliser-free nanocarrier for the antimicrobial peptide LL-37 that also promotes wound healing. They demonstrated that stabiliser-free cubosomes show promise as advanced cytocompatible nanovehicles for nutrient and drug delivery. 

Vertebrates have two main immune strategies. In simple terms, the adaptive (or acquired) immune system responds to specific pathogens by producing antibodies. The innate immune system is older (in evolutionary terms) and is found in all kinds of life, from plants and fungi to insects and multicellular organisms. The innate immune system makes use of less specific defence mechanisms, including physical barriers (such as skin or bark), clotting factors in blood or sap, and specialised cells that attack foreign substances. 

Read more on the Diamond Light Source website

Image : Graphical representation of a cubosome. The coloured surface resembles the lipid-water interface with the confined water channels. The channel diameter is typically in the range of 10 nanometres, with the overall size of the cubosomes being several hundred nanometres.

Visualising the bionanomachines that create potent antibiotics

… and other modern drugs.

Researchers from McGill University and Yale University used the Canadian Light Source (CLS) at the University of Saskatchewan to make a discovery that could help design future therapeutic drugs. The research team studied how mega-enzymes, known as nonribosomal peptide synthetases (NRPSs), create potent antibiotics, immunosuppressants and other modern drugs.

In a paper featured on the cover of the May 2020 issue of Nature Chemical Biology, the team reports how they were able to visualize an NRPSs’ mechanical system using the CMCF beamline at the CLS.

>Read more on the Canadian Light Source website

Image: Associate Professor Schmeing in the lab

Study offers new target for antibiotic resistant bacteria

As antibiotic resistance rises, the search for new antibiotic strategies has become imperative. In 2013, the Centers for Disease Control estimated that antibiotic resistant bacteria cause at least 2 million infections and 23,000 deaths a year in the U.S.; a recent report raised the likely mortality rate to 162,044.
New Cornell research on an enzyme in bacteria essential to making DNA offers a new pathway for targeting pathogens. In “Convergent Allostery in Ribonucleotide Reductase,” published June 14 in Nature Communications, researchers used the MacCHESS research stations at the Cornell High Energy Synchrotron Source (CHESS) to reveal an unexpected mechanism of activation and inactivation in the protein ribonucleotide reductase (RNR).

Understanding the “switch” that turns RNR off provides a possible means to shut off the reproduction of harmful bacteria.
RNRs take ribonucleotides, the building blocks of RNA, and convert them to deoxyribonucleotides, the building blocks of DNA. In all organisms, the regulation of RNRs involves complex mechanisms, and for good reason: These mechanisms prevent errors and dangerous mutations.

>Read more on the CHESS website

Image: William Thomas, a graduate student in the field of chemistry and chemical biology, collects data on ribonucleotide reductase.

How stained glass can help in the battle against superbugs

Ancient skills meet cutting edge technology in the battle against antibiotic resistance

Bacteria can form colonies (known as biofilms) on the surface of objects. This is a particular problem when it occurs on medical devices implanted into the body, such as catheters, prosthetic cardiac valves and intrauterine devices, as biofilms can display resistance to both antibiotics and the body’s immune response. Any incision into the body risks a surgical infection, and if a biofilm takes hold it can be difficult to eradicate. With the rise in antibiotic resistance, scientists are seeking new ways to prevent infections, and there is increasing interest in impregnate medical devices with antimicrobial substances. In work recently published in ACS Biomaterials Science & Engineering, researchers from Aston University in Birmingham, led by Dr Richard Martin, explored the antimicrobial potential of phosphate glasses doped with cobalt, and found them to be effective against Escherichia coli, Staphylococcus aureus and Candida albicans when placed in direct contact, suggesting that cobalt-doped bioactive glasses could be developed with antimicrobial properties. The technique they discovered is similar to those used to make stained glass in medieval times.

>Read more on the Diamond Light Source website
Image: Images of the copper (left) and cobalt (right) doped bioactive glasses.
Credit: Dr Richard Martin

First experiments reveal unknown structure of antibiotics killer

DESY-led international collaboration obtains first scientific results from European XFEL

An international collaboration led by DESY and consisting of over 120 researchers has announced the results of the first scientific experiments at Europe’s new X-ray laser European XFEL. The pioneering work not only demonstrates that the new research facility can speed up experiments by more than an order of magnitude, it also reveals a previously unknown structure of an enzyme responsible for antibiotics resistance. “The groundbreaking work of the first team to use the European XFEL has paved the way for all users of the facility who greatly benefit from these pioneering experiments,” emphasises European XFEL managing director Robert Feidenhans’l. “We are very pleased – these results show that the facility works even better than we had expected and is ready to deliver new scientific breakthroughs.” The scientists present their results, including the first new protein structure solved at the European XFEL, in the journal Nature Communications.

“Being at a totally new class of facility we had to master many challenges that nobody had tackled before,” says DESY scientist Anton Barty from the Center for Free-Electron Laser Science (CFEL), who led the team of about 125 researchers involved in the first experiments that were open to the whole scientific community. “I compare it to the maiden flight of a novel aircraft: All calculations and assembly completed, everything says it will work, but not until you try it do you know whether it actually flies.”

The 3.4 kilometres long European XFEL is designed to deliver X-ray flashes every 0.000 000 220 seconds (220 nanoseconds). To unravel the three-dimensional structure of a biomolecule, such as an enzyme, the pulses are used to obtain flash X-ray exposures of tiny crystals grown from that biomolecule. Each exposure gives rise to a characteristic diffraction pattern on the detector. If enough such patterns are recorded from all sides of a crystal, the spatial structure of the biomolecule can be calculated. The structure of a biomolecule can reveal much about how it works.

>Read more on the DESY website and on the European XFEL website

Image: Artist’s impression of the experiment: When the ultra-bright X-ray flashes (violet) hit the enzyme crystals in the water jet (blue), the recorded diffraction data allow to reconstruct the spatial structure of the enzyme (right).
Credit: DESY/Lucid Berlin

ALS passes the 7000-protein milestone

The eight structural biology beamlines at the ALS have now collectively deposited over 7000 proteins into the Protein Data Bank (PDB), a worldwide, open-access repository of protein structures. The 7000th ALS protein structure (entry no. 6C7C) is an enzyme from Mycobacterium ulcerans (strain Agy99), solved with data from Beamline 5.0.2. This bacterium produces a toxin that eats away at skin tissue, causing what’s known as Buruli ulcers (Google at your own risk!). The bacterium is antibiotic-resistant, and treatment involves the surgical removal of infected tissues, including amputation.

The enzyme structure was solved by a group from the Seattle Structural Genomics Center for Infectious Disease (SSGID), whose mission is to obtain crystal structures of potential drug targets on the priority pathogen list of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID). As of May 2018, SSGCID has deposited 1090 structures in the PDB, with data for more than a quarter of those collected at ALS beamlines.

>Read more on the Advanced Light Source website

Image: PDB 6C7C: Enoyl-CoA hydratase, an enzyme from M. ulcerans (strain Agy99).

How dolphins could potentially lead to new antibiotics

The world is currently living through a multidrug resistance problem, where antibiotics that traditionally work are not effective anymore. A European team of scientists at the University of Hamburg (Germany), University of Munich (Germany), University of Bordeaux (France), University of Trieste (Italy) and University of London (UK) have studied how some peptides in dolphins target bacterial ribosomes and hence, could provide clues about potential new antibiotics.

Proline-rich antimicrobial peptides (PrAMPs) are antibacterial components of the immune systems of animals such as honey bees, cows and, as this study proves, bottlenose dolphins. These peptides are a first response for the killing of bacteria. In humans, antimicrobial peptides (AMPs) mainly kill bacteria by disrupting the bacterial cell membrane, but so far no evidence of PrAMPs has been found. PrAMPs have a different mechanism of action to AMPs: they pass through the membrane of the cell without perturbing it and bind to ribosomes to inhibit protein synthesis.

The European team have been studying the mechanism of action of bacteria killing peptides in animals: “We want to compare PrAMPs from different organisms to mechanistically understand how these peptides inhibit bacteria”, Daniel Wilson explains.

>Read more on the European Synchrotron website

Illustration showing the mechanism of Tur1A. (entire image: here)
Credits: D. Wilson