Scientists uncover bacterial armor

Scientists recently uncovered the structure of the protein coat that surrounds and protects many kinds of bacteria, including those used as biological weapons.

Experts hope the new findings will help in the development of vaccines against pathogenic bacteria. Until now, scientists have had little information about the function of the coating, called S-layer, although some bacteria invest as much as a third of their protein production building it, according to

"Uncovering the bacterial armor of pathogens like the superbug Clostridium difficile or of Bacillus anthraci, the bacterium responsible for anthrax, is now a high priority for many scientists," Dr. Stefan Howorka of University College London said, reports. "This understanding provides a real opportunity to find chinks in the bacterial armor that would allow precise targeting of antibiotics or vaccines against these challenging pathogens."

A team of scientists from the United Kingdom, France and Belgium were able to image the S-layer of a harmless bacterium found in soil down to a single atom. Visually, it appears as though the proteins of the protective layer hook together in a fashion similar to chain mail.

"Now that we have worked out how to obtain the structure of the S-layer in one bacterium, we expect that the structure of the protein coats of other species will soon be revealed," Howorka said, according to

The S-layer helps to support the shape of bacteria and protects them from environmental hazards. It is also believed to play a role in how pathogenic bacteria cause infections, potentially helping them slide into cells where they can cause damage.