National Physical Laboratory

Peeling bacteria: a new basis for more-effective antibiotics

An international team of researchers, led by the National Physical Laboratory (NPL), has engineered an antimicrobial mechanism that kills bacteria within minutes by peeling their membranes. The findings could provide a new physical basis for designing more-effective antibiotics.

An atomic force micrograph showing a peptide-nibbled bacterium cell (Courtesy of RSC)
An atomic force micrograph showing a peptide-nibbled
bacterium cell (Courtesy of RSC)

As part of the search for alternative antimicrobial strategies, the NPL-led team set out to exploit the core advantage of our innate immune system – speed. The immune system uses host defence peptides that recognise and destroy the membranes of harmful bacteria. These peptides are produced in large numbers at sites of inflammation and form groups to quickly and indiscriminately attack any bacteria they encounter. However, if the groups are small or dispersed, bacterial cells can escape and multiply, at which point clinicians have to turn to antibiotics.

To exploit this natural defence mechanism, NPL biotechnologists, in collaboration with researchers from University College London, the University of Oxford, the University of Edinburgh, the University of Western Australia, the European Commission Joint Research Centre, Physikalisch-Technische Bundesanstalt and the IBM Thomas J Watson Research Center, adapted the very strategy bacteria use to slowly destroy human cells.

The team predicted and engineered a molecular-scale motif that instead of making holes in bacterial cells would thin and exfoliate their membranes. The process, termed monolayer poration, 'nibbles' membranes to expose their oily part to water, which leads to irreparable ulcers and invariably to bacterial cell death (see image).

The findings, reported in the journal Chemical Science, offer a new physical basis for designing more-effective antibiotics and are being explored to enhance our defences against the growing threat of increasingly-sophisticated bacteria.

For more information, contact Max Ryadnov

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Last Updated: 10 Jan 2017
Created: 20 Oct 2016


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