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Novel bacterial protein complex discovered by international research team


Guelph, ON – A new find by an international research team of a novel bacterial protein complex may ultimately help in designing drugs to disable pathogens that cause a range of disorders such as meningitis, blood diseases and hospital-acquired infections, says Chris Whitfield, a professor in University of Guelph’s department of molecular and cellular biology who is leading one of the two teams involved in the research.

The research was published November 1 in Nature. It was authored by Dr Whitfield and post-doctoral researchers Jutta Nesper, Anne Brunkan-LaMontagne and Brad Clarke, along with a research team at the Centre for Biomolecular Sciences at the University of St Andrews in Scotland.

The research team described the first structure representing a previously unknown class of membrane proteins essential in allowing pathogens to elude host immune defences. This protein enables the bacteria to move large polysaccharides through the cell membrane. Once on the cell surface, these long polymer chains make a protective coat against the immune system.

“This protein breaks the rules as we knew them,” says Dr Whitfield. “It’s effectively a new way to make a membrane channel. While we had many working models for the protein, the final structure was a real surprise. It is a beautiful example of nature’s ability to find elegantly simple solutions for complex biological problems.”

The discovery may give researchers a new target for antibiotics intended to prevent the polymers from passing through bacterial membranes. Alternatively, drug companies may devise new ways to keep large membrane channels fixed open another strategy that may prove just as lethal to pathogens.