Building a barrier to bacteria
The unlikely relationship between green fluorescent protein from a jellyfish and a potentially fatal golden staph infection is the cornerstone of landmark research underway by biochemist Dr Peter Lewis.
Lewis is using the green fluorescent protein from the jellyfish Aequorea victoria for his research into bacteria, as part of a global effort to develop anti-infection drugs to combat disease.
The €12 million ($AUD20 million) initiative, known as the Bacillus Systems Biology (or the BaSysBio) project, involves the collaboration of 16 international partners. Lewis is the only researcher based outside of Europe. The project is investigating the changes that occur when bacteria are under stress – the point at which it is likely to become most infectious.
Lewis' work involves researching transcription, a process where the genetic information in chromosomes, or DNA, is copied and used by the cell to make protein.
"The joy of the Aequorea victoria’s green fluorescent protein is that it is programmed by a single gene. Genes easily move from one type of organism to another, so we can stitch two genes together to make a new larger one," Lewis says.
"If we do this with the green fluorescent protein gene and the gene we are interested in, we can tag it so when it becomes a protein it will glow and we can follow it as it moves around the cell."
The project is tracking transcription to determine how a bacterium becomes infectious. With an understanding of the transcription process and the infection cycle, Lewis’ research will inform the development of anti-infection drugs to target bacteria.
Lewis explains, "With bacteria becoming increasingly resistant to antibiotics, there is a need to develop drugs that can help prevent bacterial infection occurring."
Antibiotics treat patients after they have been infected. Anti-infection drugs will treat people as they enter hospital for example, before they are exposed to bacteria. The drugs stop the bacteria becoming infectious – acting as a prevention rather than a cure.
Golden staph is one of the more common infections the project team is tackling. Lewis says the research is working towards more effectively identifying a staph infection before it is put under stress and begins to spread.
"If a staph infection is identified quickly, it can be treated with antibiotics. But with antibiotics you are trying to kill something that will keep evolving to ensure its survival.
"The role of anti-infection drugs is to stop the bacterium before it sets up an infection rather than eliminate the bacterium altogether. This approach reduces the pressure on the bacteria to develop resistance.
"The real strength of anti-infection drugs will lie in their use in hospitals to help reduce the number of diseases building resistance to a range of drugs."
Lewis says while bacterium targeted by anti-infection drugs will still develop a resistance, it will be a slower process with less pressure on the bacteria to fight for its survival.
The Bacillus Systems Biology project is primarily funded by the European Union. Lewis was awarded nearly $500,000 from the Australian Government’s National Health and Medical Research Council and $110,000 from the Department of Education, Science and Training for his part in the project.