Sleeping with the Enemy: How Waking Good Bacteria Can Help You Fight Infection

Researchers have discovered a way to wake up sleeping bacteria cells and provide relief for chronic infections through study of peptide links.
Dana  Miller
Bacteria infection iLexx/iStock

We've all got that friend who sleeps in the day after the party, fails to help clean up, and simply overstays the host's hospitality. As it happens, bacterial populations have these lingering "friends" as well, and they are dubbed "persisters" for their insipid refusal to wake from their deep sleeps and respond to antibiotics.

Bacterial cells can retreat into deep levels of dormancy that plague both patients and doctors with a constant need to find new mechanisms for shaking the pesky buggers awake and shooing them out the door (read: your body). 


Researchers headed up by Jan Michiels of the VIB-KU Leuven Center for Microbiology, working with E.coli, have isolated new way to wake up sleepy bacterial cells. A peptide called HokB, known to be responsible for pore formation in the cell membranes of bacteria, is the key to understanding how sleepy cells can be addressed. A minor relative of proteins, HokB's pore contributions effects energy loss in the bacteria on a rapid and massive scale, forcing the cell into a slumber.

The component that allows for the pore formation, however, occurs only when a link is formed between two HokB peptides. Michiel and team recorded that the awakening of, and thus the eventual eradication of, sleeping bacterial cells rests on forcibly breaking this established link.

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The pore likewise breaks down once the link is gone, energy returns to the cell and it begins to ingest nutrients, which means it can also inadvertently suck in antibiotics. Through this research, chronic infections, such as those present in the lung infections of cystic fibrosis, Myobacterium tuberculosis, and even urinary tract infections caused by Escherichia coli, may shortly be a thing of the past.

This study is the first to offer a reliable mechanism for destroying persister cells and provides deeper understanding of ways we might design to address sleepy cells in other arenas. This type of molecule-stimulation therapy, combined with traditional antibiotics, may solve longstanding medical challenges surrounding all kinds of chronic bacterial infections.

 Watch the video below for more informatio on how bacteria communicate.

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