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12 Jan 2016

Sticky fingers are unavoidable when indulging in sugar coated sweets, but scientists have discovered that some infectious disease causing-bacteria use this sticky situation to their advantage.

Pathogenic bacteria has been found to initiate infection in a rather unique way – it uses its surface sugars to attach bacteria directly to sugars on the surface of human cells.

Researchers have found that four different types of bacteria pathogens: Campylobacter jejuni, Salmonella typhimurium, Shigella flexneri and Haemophilius influenzae, use this method to spread infection.

University of Adelaide researchers found that the Shingella flexneri bacteria, which causes millions of episodes of dysentery each year, use sugars of their surface lipopolysaccharide molecules to stick to human gut cells.

There is no Shingella vaccine currently available despite decades of research worldwide, and the bacteria can be resistant to antibiotics. The researchers hope their new understanding of how the bacteria spreads will advance progress towards a vaccine and other ways to block the sugars.

Lead researcher Associate Professor Renato Morona said that “as a result of the discovery we now have a better understanding of how bacteria initiate infections and how many current vaccines work”.

“It’s been known for a long time that sugars on the surface of bacteria can be involved in bacteria sticking to cells, to promote infections,” Associate Professor Morona told Adelaide Advertiser.

“What hasn’t been realised is that these sugars are often sticking to is sugars on the surface of cells.”

Associate Professor Morona said that while bacteria were known to use sugars to attach proteins, any sugar-to-sugar interaction was considered either impossible, weak, or irrelevant.

“The discovery is fundamental knowledge that is broadly applicable to many other bacteria and microbes, and could have other translational outcomes such as probes for studying human cells, and development of better infant milk formula,” Associate Professor Morona said.

The research was supported by the National Health and Medical Research Council. The team has received a four-year grant to explore the potential of their discovery.

The University of Adelaide in collaboration with Griffith University published the research in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal.

Kirsty Waterford


Published: 12 Jan 2016