AN INTERNATIONAL TEAM OF RESEARCHERS HAS IMAGED THE SURFACE OF A BACTERIUM IN UNPRECEDENTED DETAIL

Author: Dray Valiente

A detailed image of the surface of living bacteria was obtained using a nano-sized needle tip to study the complex external structures of E. coli.

An unprecedented look at the strong outer membrane of gram-negative bacteria (a group that includes species such as A. baumannii, P. aeruginosa, Salmonella and E. Coli) was taken by scientists at University College London.

Experts warn that the outer membrane of gram-negative bacteria is becoming more effective at warding off antibiotics, and therefore, by 2050, these types of superbugs could kill millions of people.

“The outer membrane represents a significant barrier against antibiotics and is an important factor in making infectious bacteria resistant to drug treatment. However, it remains relatively unclear how this barrier works, so we decided to study it in such detail, ”explained the corresponding author of the article, Professor Bart Hugenboom.

To do this, the team combed the outer surface of E. coli using a tiny needle with a tip just a few nanometers wide. This allowed them to detect and, in turn, display very fine molecular structures on the surface of bacteria and show that the outer membrane has microscopic holes formed by proteins. They allow nutrients to pass through, preventing toxins from entering.

To the surprise of the researchers, some parts of the membrane did not appear to contain proteins at all but carried molecules with sugar chains known as glycolipids, and parts of the membrane were actually turned inside out as a result of mutations. These defects correlate with a higher sensitivity to an antibiotic called bacitracin, which is usually only effective against gram-positive bacteria.

“The textbook image of the bacterial outer membrane shows that proteins are randomly distributed throughout the membrane, well mixed with other building blocks of the membrane,” explains study author Georgina Benn.

“Our images show that this is not the case, but lipid spots are separated from protein-rich networks in the same way that oil separates from water, in some cases creating gaps in the bacterial shell. This means that we can now begin to study whether and how this order matters for membrane function, integrity, and antibiotic resistance. ”

In addition to identifying potential weaknesses that can be targeted by antibiotics, this work could also reveal how bacteria can grow rapidly while maintaining a tightly packed outer membrane. The researchers suspect that glycolipid spots may be more flexible than protein spots, allowing the membrane to stretch and adapt as the bacteria grow.

Journal Sources:

[1] Bowler, J. (2021). These Could Be The Most Detailed Close-Up Images of Living Bacteria Taken to Date. ScienceAlert. https://www.sciencealert.com/scientists-take-a-super-close-up-picture-of-a-living-e-coli-bacterium

[2] Phase separation in the outer membrane of Escherichia coli. Georgina Benn, Irina V. Mikheyeva, Patrick GeorgeInns, et al. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Nov 2021, 118 (44) e2112237118; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2112237118

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