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Targeting Pili Could be a key to Halting Antibiotic Resistance

Piliimage 1

Stony Brook, N.Y., October 3, 2018 – Antibiotic resistance is an urgent problem globally when treating many infections, and scientists continue to search for new ways to combat resistance. Now a team of scientists led by David Thanassi, PhD, Chair of the Department of Molecular Genetics and Microbiology at Stony Brook University, believe a better understanding of the mechanisms of pili, the hair-like surface appendages on bacteria that initiate infection, could hold a key to developing new and more effective therapeutics. They published their findings in Nature.

Thanassi and colleagues used an advanced imaging technique called cryo-electron microscopy to examine pili assembled by uropathogenic strains of Escherichia coli, the major causative agent of urinary tract infections. Their imaging captured a previously unrecognized stage in the pilus assembly process.

The image on the right is a standard electron microscopy view of E. coli. On the left is an image of a pilus structure using cryoelectron microscopy and atomic modeling.
The image on the right is a standard electron microscopy view of E. coli. On the left is an image of a pilus structure using cryoelectron microscopy and atomic modeling. The red circle and lines indicate this image corresponds to an actual pilus fiber just emerging across the bacterial outer membrane to the cell surface. Credit: David Thanassi, PhD, Stony Brook University

“This discovery provides us with new insights into the mechanism by which bacteria build these essential virulence structures leading to infection,” says Thanassi, who emphasizes that antibiotic resistance rates have risen to alarming levels, jeopardizing the effective treatment of even common infections such as of the urinary tract.

“Our findings open the door to new therapies targeting bacterial pili, and related virulence factors, as an alternative to traditional antibiotics,” he explained.

The research is supported in part by a grant from the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of General Medical Sciences. For more about the finding, see this brief video.

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