Scientists create image of plague injection apparatus

Researchers in Germany and the United States recently created an image of the sophisticated injection apparatus used by bacteria when infecting a host.

Scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Göttingen, the Max Planck Institute for Infection Biology in Berlin and the University of Washington in Seattle have photographed the structures at an atomic resolution.

The needle-like structures are used by bacteria such as plague and salmonella to release molecular agents into host cells in order to aid in successfully evading the human body's immune response.

The researchers hope their findings will contribute to the development and tailoring of new drug therapies and strategies to prevent the infection process.

The exact nature of the 60 to 80 nanometer long injectors remained unknown before Adam Lange and Stefan Becker of the Max Planck Institute, along with a team of biologists and chemists, came up with a novel approach to use solid-state NMR spectroscopy and computer modeling to determine specifically what they look like.

The team deciphered the structure of the apparatus atom by atom and visualized its molecular structure at a resolution of less than one-tenth of a millionth of a millimeter.

"We were surprised to see how the needles are constructed," Lange said. "As expected, the needles of pathogens causing diseases as diverse as food poisoning, bacterial dysentery or the plague show striking similarities. However, in contrast to prevailing assumptions, the similarities are found in the inner part of the needles whereas the surface is astonishingly variable."