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Lab of Robert Ernst, PhD, Publishes Groundbreaking Bacterial Research

Written by Adam Zewe

Scientists in the Department of Microbial Pathogenesis seek to understand one mechanism Gram-negative bacteria use to adapt for survival inside a human or animal host. The lab of Associate Professor Robert Ernst, PhD, recently published a paper in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) that shows how temperature-regulated bacterial adaptation can be accomplished. This research could be used to uncover new ways to fight bacterial infection.

Dr. Robert ErnstThe paper, entitled "LPS remodeling is an evolved survival strategy for bacteria," describes a study conducted by lead researcher Yanyan Li. Li, a visiting graduate student from Jiangnan University in China, conducted research in Dr. Ernst's lab during a two-and-a-half year fellowship. She and a team of researchers studied the changes that occur on the surface of bacteria when the organism adapts to growth at different temperatures. All bacteria must adapt to survive when they enter a host. Alterations in the structure of the outer membrane surface of bacteria (LPS), is one mechanism that is responsible for this surface adaptation, explains Dr. Ernst. "We knew that the surface of the bacteria changed when it enters a human or animal, but we didn't understand how," he remarks.

YanYan LiTo study bacterial adaptation, Li manipulated the temperature and analyzed how the bacterial surface changed. This analysis showed that at different temperatures, specific LPS structures were present in the outer membrane. She also identified that this adaptation required a second LPS enzyme acquired from a different species of bacteria. Li then mutated each of these bacterial enzymes, which prevented the bacteria from being able to adapt to warm-blooded human temperatures. This altered bacterial strain was avirulant, which means that it did not kills its host, Dr. Ernst states. Additionally, the altered strain protected the host from a subsequent lethal challenge.

This research has important implications for future medical treatments. Researchers could use these findings to generate a live vaccine strain, or identify bacterial components that could be the basis for future vaccines, Dr. Ernst says. "I find it rewarding to finally understand what allows this organism to adapt. Being able to analyze how bacteria alter their membranes could be valuable to studies in the future," he concludes.

Click here to read the full paper.

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