University of Texas at Austin scientists are taking aim at a common bacterium and developing new methods of evaluating life-threatening infection in people with cystic fibrosis (CF). The work, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, could advance understanding and treatment of CF.
Pseudomonas aeruginosa (called P. aeruginosa for short) is the culprit at hand, a deadly infection which causes hospitalizations, illness and, sometimes, death in people with CF. The loathsome bacterium is found almost everywhere: soil, water, skin and most man-made environments. The researchers are trying to understand how it spreads by identifying specific genes that might control its ability to replicate and infect.
CF is a serious and debilitating genetic disease characterized by recurring lung infections. In CF, bacteria colonize a patient’s lungs starting in childhood. This causes difficulty breathing. P. aeruginosa can take up residence in the lung mucus of a person with cystic fibrosis.
Marvin Whiteley, a professor of molecular biosciences, and his collaborators at The University of Texas at Austin, studied bacteria in mucus from CF lungs in a lab petri dish and examined how P. aeruginosa infects and identified the genes that are needed for reproduction.
“We’ve developed something other labs can replicate,” noted Whiteley, referring to the experimental system developed by his lab. “It allows researchers to do relevant experiments in a context that really matters.”
The system will be very helpful for other groups studying CF and infection.
“Most studies grow bacteria in test tubes in a rich growth medium they never see in the real world. It’s rather like studying lion behavior in a zoo rather than in its natural habitat,” stated Steve Diggle, an associate professor of life sciences at the University of Nottingham. “What Marvin has done is to try and re-create the sputum that Pseudomonas grows in so we can see what genes are important for bacterial fitness in this environment.”
Research support for the study was provided partially from the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.