We learn from bacterial evolution to help design better medical interventions.
Bacteria are incredibly diverse and adaptable. This makes them exciting, but also problematic when they cause diseases. One notable example is resistance to antibiotics: as a result of excessive drug use, bacteria with the capacity to resist the action of antibiotics have been outcompeting other bacteria. As we are currently running out of antibiotics, we need novel weapons against these “superbugs”. But new weapons are not enough – bacteria will eventually overcome them too. We also need to understand how bugs adapt to these weapons, and use them wisely.
“Antimicrobial resistance poses a catastrophic threat. If we don’t act now, any one of us could go into hospital in 20 years for minor surgery and die because of an ordinary infection that can’t be treated by antibiotics. And routine operations like hip replacements or organ transplants could be deadly because of the risk of infection.”
— prof. dame sally davies, England’s chief medical officer
In our lab, we study bacterial surface structures called capsules and lipopolysaccharides. These molecules are made of highly diverse sugars and, as was shown, are able to evolve quickly. Incidentally, these sugars are targets of many novel biotechnological approaches to fight opportunistic bacterial infections which do not respond to antibiotics: glycoconjugate vaccines, immunotherapies or phage-based treatments. These surface structures have likely been co-evolving with the immune system and phages for millions of years. Hence, we need to learn more about these interactions to understand the full potential of future medical interventions targeted at bacterial surface sugars.