Planet of the Bugs
Planet of the Bugs


Planet of the Bugs

Professor Ian Paulsen is on the trail of ‘superbugs’, the drug-resistant bacteria that don’t respond to typical antibiotic treatments, and which pose a growing, world wide health threat.

But Paulsen’s discovery of Acel which makes the bacteria resistant by pumping antiseptics out of its cells may change the picture.

The recent development of next-generation sequencing techniques has given biologists new tools to investigate bacteria and microorganisms.

“It was really difficult, before, to know how these ‘superbug’ bacteria did in response to different conditions. However, with the sequencing-based approach, we could observe how all of the genes in a cell changed and which ones got switched on in response to the addition of antiseptic, for example.”

The technique exposed a capability of the organism that no-one had previously known about: these cells had a new resistance mechanism that created a protein that pumped the antiseptic out of the cell.

“We’ve only used antiseptics for the last hundred years or so – this particular antiseptic was first used in the 1960s or 70s,” Paulsen says.

“What we now know is that this gene is found across bacteria that are separated by hundreds of millions of years of evolution. So the gene must have some natural function that probably has nothing to do with antiseptics, but the bacteria have put it to this use more recently – presumably in response to increasing antiseptic usage.”

“We are now looking for a compound that will inhibit the actual pump, the gene that makes the protein that pumps the antiseptic out of the cell, and reverse the drug resistance.”

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