Are bacteria turning our own weapons against us?

Scientists have identified what may be a completely new way in which bacteria defend themselves against their hosts. The bacteria have stolen a key defensive gene from the very animals that they are invading and are now using it against them. This research from the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) is featured in today's issue of the open access journal Genome Biology.

EMBL Team Leader Toby Gibson points out that such a discovery has clear medical implications. "This study gives us insight into how infectious bacteria function microbes that cause diseases such as pneumonia, whooping cough and plague are using our own gene against us," he explains. "With this new information, we could potentially produce antibodies to give our immune systems a way to identify the bacteria and block the activity of these weapons."

The gene in question makes a blood protein called alpha-2-macroglobulin, or α2m. This protein and its relatives have been studied in many different animals, and all have a similar function: defending the organism against attacking parasites.

TEPs are α2m-type proteins being studied in the mosquito by EMBL malaria researchers Stephanie Blandin and Elena Levashina. The mosquito is an interesting animal to study such defense proteins its blood-sucking lifestyle brings along a steady stream of invaders. "These α2m-type genes are a strong line of defense they trap molecules that parasites use to attack our cells," notes Blandin. The malaria researchers wanted to learn more about the evolution of TEP, so they enlisted the help of the Gibson team, including PhD student Aidan Budd.

Their findings were completely unexpected.

"During a search for genes similar to TEPs, we were very surprised to discover a bacterial α2m gene - there are no previous reports of such a finding," says Budd.

EMBL Scientists predict that the α2m is used by a bacterium to protect itself from attack

Contact: Trista Dawson
European Molecular Biology Laboratory

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