UGA researchers discover cell-wall carbohydrate that is crucial to anthrax bacterium

Athens, Ga. -- A week after the 9/11 attacks in 2001, the letters began to arrive. Someone filled envelopes with a deadly strain of anthrax bacteria and mailed them to two U.S. senators and several offices of the news media. Five people died, and 17 others became infected.

Since that time, governmental authorities have been engaged in a race to find ways to keep citizens safe if terrorists attack again with Bacillus anthracis, the bacterium that causes anthrax. Now, researchers at the University of Georgia, collaborating with scientists at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, have discovered the structure of a unique cell-wall carbohydrate in B. anthracis.

The unique nature of the carbohydrate makes the molecule an important target for evaluating its role in virulence and survival of the anthrax bacterium, the development of new diagnostic tests and perhaps even as a new vaccine additive.

Russell Carlson of the department of biochemistry and molecular biology at the University of Georgia and faculty member at UGA's Complex Carbohydrate Research Center (CCRC), was corresponding author on a paper reporting the research, which was just published in the online version of the Journal of Biological Chemistry. Other authors from the CCRC include Biswa Choudhury, Christine Leoff, Elke Saile and Elmar Kannenberg. Collaborators at CDC were Patricia Wilkins and Conrad P. Quinn.

Anthrax is a naturally occurring animal disease. This year alone there have been several large outbreaks in animals in the U.S. and Canada, so understanding the structure of important parts of B. anthracis has a wide variety of potential applications. The new UGA research is not directly about vaccine development, and much more research needs to be done before the full potential of this unique anthrax molecule is understood.

The problems facing researchers as they unravel all the molecular riddles of anthrax are

Contact: Philip Lee Williams
University of Georgia

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