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Preventing bacterial biofilms could help fight TB

HHMI researchers have identified a gene that enables mycobacteria--the cause of tuberculosis and leprosy--to form biofilms. Bacterial biofilms help mycobacteria resist treatment. But researchers found that when mycobacteria closely related to the TB and leprosy pathogens lack one key protein, mature biofilms fail to form. Interrupting the gene that produces this protein, known as GroEL1, could help treat or prevent these dread diseases

To decipher the protein's role in biofilm construction, Graham F. Hatfull, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) professor at the University of Pittsburgh, collaborated with HHMI investigator William R. Jacobs, Jr., at Albert Einstein College of Medicine. They discovered that GroEL1 oversees the production of a particular set of fatty acids called mycolic acids, which are necessary for biofilm growth.

Hatfull is one of 20 scientists nationwide who received $1 million each from HHMI to help bring the excitement of research into the science classroom. He works with undergraduates and Pittsburgh area high school students to identify bacteriophages, common viruses that infect bacteria. A bacteriophage infecting Mycobacterium smegmatis, a non-pathogenic cousin of Mycobacterium tuberculosis, helped launch the study that Hatfull and Jacobs report in the December 2, 2005 issue of the journal Cell.

"We've defined one of the first genes and mechanisms through which mycobacteria form biofilms," said Hatfull. "Understanding biofilms is important because bacteria in biofilms are tolerant to most antibiotics, and this tolerance is a major problem in controlling TB infections," he explained.

TB infects one in three people worldwide and kills thousands each day in third-world countries. Infections can also persist undetected for a lifetime. "Biofilms could play an important role in how TB itself can hunker down and protect itself from drugs and immune effector killing mechanisms. Perhaps TB hangs out in a biofilm
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Contact: Jennifer Donovan
donovanj@hhmi.org
301-215-8859
Howard Hughes Medical Institute
1-Dec-2005


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