UMASS Amherst receives NIH grant to study pathogenic bacteria structures

University of Massachusetts Amherst scientists recently received a five year, $950,000 grant from the U.S. National Institutes of Health to map the molecular structure of a tool used by pathogenic bacteria to drill holes in the cell walls of mammals.

Once the needle-like device creates a channel, bacteria that cause diseases, such as bubonic plague and sepsis, push proteins into mammal cells that can destroy the body's ability to fight infection. The scientists hope the advance will lead to targets for new drugs to fight the bacteria.

Last year, Amherst graduate student Fabian Romano and biochemist Alejandro Heuck were able to characterize enough of the bacterial needle to build a model membrane that could be used for further experimentation.

The injection system, called the Type III secretion system, or T3S, is used by several pathogens. The Amherst team will study it in Pseudomonas aeuginosa, the bacterium that causes sepsis, because it contains only one TS3, and therefore allows for experiments with fewer variables.

"It took a lot of experiments to understand how these water-soluble, water-loving proteins in the T3S translocon system could suddenly transform themselves drastically, enough to be able attach to a lipid-dominated cell membrane to form this molecular syringe for attacking cells," Heuk said.

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National Institutes of Health

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