Microscope Science

Fluorescent bacteria - nowhere to hide


Identifying the type of bacteria that could be at the heart of a serious medical or dental condition, which enables the identification of the most appropriate antibiotic for treatment, can take time. But time is the one thing that is in short supply if a bacterial infection has taken hold.

However a new technique, developed by researchers at the University of Nottingham and GSK Consumer Healthcare, might one day offer an easier and more cost-effective way of identifying the potential source of an infection, by using bacteria’s own processes to reveal their type and location.

Hijacking the bacteria’s machinery

The new approach, known as “bacteria-instructed synthesis” exploits the normal biological processes of the bacteria to grow polymers (large molecules) on their own surfaces.

“These polymers will bind strongly to the bacteria that produced them because they retain a form of ‘structural memory’ of that surface” explains Dr David Churchley, principal scientist in GSK Consumer Healthcare R&D and one of the collaborators and co-authors of the study. “By using the same biological processes to tag fluorescent compounds onto these polymers, we could rapidly and relatively easily detect these bacteria with a simple mobile phone camera.”

This ‘synthesis’ was used successfully in the lab to identify a range of bacteria that are commonly involved in infection, including Escherichia coli and Pseudomonas aeruginosa (important in, for example, the infected lungs of cystic fibrosis patients).

By using the same biological processes to tag fluorescent compounds onto these polymers, we could rapidly and relatively easily detect these bacteria with a simple mobile phone camera.

Dr David Churchley

In an ordinary setting, the identification of specific bacteria normally requires expensive compounds that frequently have to be kept cold before use. This can preclude rapid identification outside of a hospital setting.

“In contrast, the process employed in our research allows us to use readily available materials which do not require ‘cold-chain’ storage, and thus are adaptable for less specialised laboratory settings,” explained Dr David Bradshaw, another GSK principal scientist and co-author of the study.

The research published in the journal Nature Materials, suggests that this new method of detecting harmful bacteria could be particularly important in the developing world and emerging markets, where access to sophisticated laboratory equipment and materials may be limited.

“The really intriguing part of this study was the realisation that we could ‘hijack’ the machinery that bacteria normally use to control their local environment, and use it against them” says Prof Cameron Alexander, who led the study from the School of Pharmacy in Nottingham.

Longer term, the researchers hope to enlarge the family of building blocks to generate polymers with more selective bacterial binding properties.

The study was co-sponsored and funded by GSK Consumer Healthcare’s Oral Healthcare R&D organisation, the UK Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and the UK Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) through a programme that offers collaborative training grants to PhD candidates.

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