The study showed that the cells of some bacteria can become “hungry” and irritable, just like humans.
Microbiologists have discovered that nutrient deficiencies cause certain bacterial cells to release harmful toxins into our bodies that can make us sick.
Although the current study has only focused on one bacterium, if the results are identical to those for other species, this could pave the way for new treatments for the infection, according to a study published in Nature Microbiology.
The study was conducted by microbiologist Professor Adam Rosenthal of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and his colleagues from Harvard and Princeton Universities, as well as the Dutch pet food company Danisco.
Professor Rosenthal said: “Bacteria behave very differently than we have traditionally thought. Even when we study a community of genetically similar bacteria, not all of them behave in the same way. And we wanted to find out why.”
The team used a newly developed assay technique called “probe-based sequencing of bacteria” to read the RNA molecules of thousands of individual bacteria.
The latter types of bacteria are commonly found in nature and are the main cause of food poisoning.
The researchers suggested that genetically similar cells in the bacterial community perform different functions: some organs behave more obediently, while others produce toxins that make us sick.
Rosenthal decided to take a closer look at why some cells behave like “well-behaved residents” while others behave like “bad actors” tasked with releasing toxins into the environment around them.
The team chose to study Clostridium perfringens (or C. perfringens), a bacterium found in the human gut, vertebrates, insects and soil. They were able to separate or split individual bacterial cells into droplets in order to decipher each cell individually.
They identified a bacterial subpopulation that produces and secretes a toxin known as “netB”. However, this is only possible in the absence of acetate, a short-chain fatty acid widely distributed in the intestines.
They found that the non-toxin-producing cells of C. perfringens were well fed with nutrients. On the other hand, the cells producing the C. perfringens toxin appear to be deprived of these essential nutrients.
Based on the findings that nutrients play an important role in bacterial toxicity, Professor Rosenthal said he now wonders if there are specific factors in the environment that “switch on” the production of toxins by bacterial pathogens other than C. perfringens.
If so, introducing nutrients into bacteria could provide a new way to treat bacterial infections in both humans and animals.
In fact, C. perfringens is known to infect chickens, being highly contagious and fatal to birds, and as the poultry industry shifts away from the use of antibiotics, new means of protection against this disease are needed.
Accordingly, the new study offers farmers a potential new way to reduce the number of disease-causing bacteria in their herds without resorting to antibiotics.
As for us, the people, there is something to work on.
Rosenthal and his colleagues are aiming to apply their recent findings to combat antibiotic tolerance. Antibiotic tolerance occurs when some bacteria are able to evade a drug target even though the population has not developed mutations that make all cells resistant to the antibiotic. This tolerance may lead to less effective treatments, but the mechanisms that control tolerance are not well understood.
After completing the initial study, researchers continue to study the behavior of these complex bacterial communities.
The full results of the study are published in the journal Nature Microbiology.