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University of Alabama researchers uncover critical insights into bacterial immune systems

Researchers at the University of Alabama discovered how a common skin bacteria wards off viruses by leveraging cellular processes normally not considered part of any immune system.

This discovery constitutes another milestone in understanding how to harness bacterial viruses to combat antibiotic-resistant infections.

An immune system in Staphylococcus bacteria UA researchers studied does not function on its own. Instead, it collaborates with other enzymes inside the cell to mount an effective defense against viral infection, according to a paper published in the journal eLife.

Dr. Asma Hatoum-Aslan, UA assistant professor of biological sciences, and one of her graduate students, Lucy Chou-Zheng, are co-authors on the paper.

“There are a lot of far-reaching consequences of the work,” Hatoum-Aslan said. “This basic research provides first glimpses of how an important bacterial defensive system mobilizes other parts of the cell in times of need.”

The human body hosts all sorts of bacteria and the viruses that attack them, called phages. There is limited knowledge about what transpires between phages and their bacterial hosts within the microbiome.

Some phages are lethal to their hosts and constitute attractive candidates that might one day supplement or replace antibiotics. However, bacterial defenses threaten to undermine the effectiveness of phage-based antimicrobials.

“Since phages are being explored as alternatives to conventional antibiotics, it is essential to understand precisely how bacterial immune systems work and interact with their immediate environment, especially in pathogenic bacteria,” Hatoum-Aslan said. “In addition, detailed molecular-level studies of this sort usually provide fertile grounds for the conception and development of new biotechnologies.“

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)