Sylvie Rebuffat (far right) and her team - including (from left) Yanyan Li, Christophe Goulard and Severine Zirah - set out to unlock the molecular puzzle of precisely how lasso peptides work.
Scientists are using every trick in the book to go one-up in the global arms race against evolving pathogens.
Earlier this year, the World Health Organisation issued a reality check. Far from an apocalyptic fantasy, antimicrobial resistance is happening now. In every region of the world, resistance to antibiotics has the potential to affect anyone of any age in any country. To quote WHO, the problem is so serious that it threatens to negate the achievements of modern medicine.
In light of the chilling picture painted in its April report, preventing a regression to the dark ages of treating disease should be at the top of our agenda. Nobody wants to go back to when common infections and minor injuries could kill you. And it isn’t just governments and health authorities entering the fray. Scientists, too, are using every trick in the book to go one-up in the global arms race against evolving pathogens.
Sylvie Rebuffat, a professor at the Museum National d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris, will tell you that bacteria do not live isolated lives in nature; they exist in communities. Groups of different bacteria compete for resources within their environment, waging war on one another.
One novel piece of research is looking at the potential of using the “war tactics” bacteria utilise in such situations to humanity’s advantage. Rebuffat specialises in molecular defence and communication within “microbial ecosystems”, and harbours a particular interest in peptides. Peptides are made up of short amino acid chains, and are smaller than proteins.
Generally speaking, peptides are produced by all organisms, and many have antimicrobial properties. This is a fact we have long exploited to our advantage – for example, penicillin is based on an antimicrobial peptide produced by blue mould. In the bacterial context, peptides are thought to be used in molecular signalling, both as a form of communication between bacteria, as well as defence.
Recently, Rebuffat’s research team from the Museum National d’Histoire Naturelle decided to collaborate with scientists from Imperial College London and the University Of Oxford. They had a very specific question in mind: can we exploit the tools of warfare used by bacteria in the human battle against these microscopic pathogens?