Viruses help strep bacteria turn deadly

A common bacterium can turn into a potent killer if it picks up the right set of genes, but how and when those genes are acquired has remained poorly understood. In a new study, researchers show that special viruses are the culprits behind the emergence of virulent select new bacterial strains. Those viruses, called bacteriophages, specifically infect bacteria, capture some of their genes, and transfer the genes from one microbe to the next. By moving genes among their hosts, bacteriophages can create new bacterial strains with potentially deadly properties. The discovery, which will reported this week in the online edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, highlights an important mechanism for bacterial evolution and identifies several potential targets for vaccines or drugs to prevent or treat some severe infections.

Group A Streptococcus (GAS) bacteria are common microbes that cause many different diseases, including strep throat, wound infections, toxic shock, "flesh-eating" disease, scarlet fever, rheumatic fever and kidney ailments. James Musser, M.D., Ph.D., of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), seeks to understand why some GAS strains cause severe infections while others lead to milder illnesses. To accomplish that goal, he and his collaborators have turned to the GAS genome. By comparing the complete genetic blueprints of bacterial strains isolated from people with different GAS infections, the researchers hope to identify specific genes linked with individual diseases.

"We are trying to move past the technical phase of genome research and start using what we have learned from gene sequences to develop new ways to prevent and treat infections and to understand how new, virulent strains emerge," says Dr. Musser, who directs the human bacterial pathogenesis laboratory at NIAID's Rocky Mountain Laboratories in Hamilton, Mont.

In their most recent study, Dr. Musser, Stephen Beres

Contact: Sam Perdue
NIH/National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases

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