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How We Could Kill Superbugs Without Antibiotics

Scientists have figured out a new weakness in the defenses of some bacteria.

How We Could Kill Superbugs Without Antibiotics

Photos: Janice Haney Carr, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Antibiotics will soon be useless, but U.K. scientists have come up with a new way to kill bacteria—and it's not with a drug. And perhaps the best thing about this approach is that bacteria may not be able to build resistance against it.

A team from the University of East Anglia, publishing in the journal Nature, figured out that the key to destroying bacteria is understanding how they build their defensive walls. It’s like ruining an astronaut’s space suit instead of going after the astronauts inside. This would apply against Gram-negative bacteria, a bacterial group that are already highly resistant to antibiotics thanks to an impermeable membrane.

Janice Haney Carr, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

"Bacterial multi-drug resistance, also known as antibiotic resistance, is a global health challenge," lead author Changjiang Dong says in a press release. "Many current antibiotics are becoming useless, causing hundreds of thousands of deaths each year. Gram-negative bacteria is one of the most difficult ones to control because it is so resistant to antibiotics."

Dong’s research used the U.K.’s Diamond Light Source synchrotron to examine the bacteria. The DLS is a crazy-bright light source (10 billion times brighter than the sun), and allowed Dong’s team to discover the mechanism by which the bacteria builds its defensive walls.

Janice Haney Carr, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Knowing how the walls are built is the key to destroying them. Drugs could target a structure called the beta-barrel assembly machinery (BAM), which folds the bacteria’s proteins into the defensive membrane.

"The beta-barrel assembly machinery is absolutely essential for Gram-negative bacteria to survive," said Dong. "Our work is the first to show the entire BAM complex. It paves the way for developing new-generation drugs."

A similar mechanism builds the walls of human mitochondria. Disruptions of the proteins in the outer membrane of these mitochondria, says Professor Dong, are linked to diabetes, Parkinson's, and other neurodegenerative diseases. His research, therefore, could also shine a (very bright) light on these diseases.

This is just the first initial step to a method for killing bacteria that doesn't require overexposed antibiotics, but it shows how many different approaches there could be, which gives us hope.

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