Research highlight

Bacteria turn a toxin into a treat

Nature Chemical Biology

March 24, 2014

Bacterial genes known to be important for virulence towards host cells are discovered to encode for enzymes that convert mammalian-derived inhibitors against these bacteria into food, according to research published online this week at Nature Chemical Biology.

Recent studies found that some mammalian cells that produce the compound itaconate in response to bacterial infections. Itaconate inhibits a central enzyme in bacterial metabolism, preventing baterial growth and helping to clear out the infection. Bacteria are known to have several mechanisms to promote survival in the hostile host environment, but it had not been known how they prevent itaconate inhibition.

Ivan Berg and colleagues determine that a set of genes known to be important for bacterial virulence actually encode enzymes that degrade the host cell’s itaconate into simple building blocks. In turn, these building blocks can be used for cell growth as bacterial cells use them in normal metabolic pathways. The authors report that these genes are present across many bacteria, including non-pathogenic species, suggesting these pathways provide a selective advantage in many environments.

doi: 10.1038/nchembio.1482

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