Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Bacteria build a house inside our cells

Bacteria appear to be able to hijack our cellular machinery in order to hide themselves inside our cells. They manipulate specific proteins to build a structure that functions as their home. Discovering this mechanism is important in the fight against bacterial infection, as this process is known to cause disease.

According to the scientists from the Purdue University, which made the discovery, the structure built by bacteria is similar to a balloon. It is made out of the raw material that we normally use to build cells, but the microbes have claimed it as their own. The structure is called a vacuole, and is able to stretch as the bacterial population inside the cell increases. Vacuoles are normally found inside plant cells, where they contain water and several molecules in solution. However, they are normally not found in animals cells, such as our own.
A plant cell with a large vacuole right in the middle.
Normally, the cellular building blocks go to the cell border, which is called the membrane. There, they are incorporated to add to its structural integrity, but the bacteria successfully prevent the material to reach their destination. The membrane segments are instead transferred to a building site where microbes are trying to hide. In their experiments, the researchers found which signals are used to divert the building blocks to the vacuole, which is important information when we try to develop new treatments against bacteria that show this kind of behaviour.

The vacuole does not only give bacteria a home, it also helps them to hide from the immune system. Because the microbes are in a secluded part, the host cell can not detect them and warn the killers that normally are supposed to protect our body against infected cells. That gives bacteria the opportunity to multiply freely, and cause problems later on.

By discovering how bacteria build homes in our cells, we have unravelled an important disease mechanism. Hiding inside a vacuole is a method of these micro-organisms to hitch a ride in our body, without being detected. However, they are still able to cause disease, which makes the bacterial homes an important target for therapeutical intervention.

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