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Nature's nanomachines harnessed to make drugs

7 November 2006

Many bacteria produce toxins that can threaten human health, however new research into how bacteria secrete these substances is giving clues as to how scientists could harness these processes to produce biopharmaceuticals. Researchers at the John Innes Centre (JIC) in Norwich have used state-of-the-art technology to study a nanomachine in soil bacteria called the Tat system, which the bacteria use to secrete a range of proteins that help them digest food and compete with other microorganisms in the soil. The scientists’ latest work, published today in the respected journal PNAS, identifies which proteins are exported via the Tat system, revealing that this system is used by more proteins than previously thought. The biotechnology industry already uses bacteria to make proteins to use in products such as biological washing powder or pharmaceuticals, but some are difficult to produce using current methods. By harnessing the Tat system, the scientists hope that it will be easier to make these proteins for biotechnological and biomedical purposes.

“The Tat nanomachine selects which proteins to secrete by recognising a short signal sequence attached to the end of the protein”, explains Professor Tracy Palmer who has an MRC Fellowship with the University of East Anglia, “Our collaborators at the University of Pennsylvania have developed a computer program to search the bacterial genome to predict which proteins use the Tat system, and in this study we have verified their results experimentally and found a significant number of signals that are recognised by this system. The next step is to attach these signals to medically important proteins so they can be secreted by the bacteria using the Tat system.”

The foundation work for this project was started as part of the BBSRC’s Exploiting Genomics Initiative; more recently Prof Palmer’s team has joined forces with the “Tat Machine Project”, an EU-funded consortium of researchers from across Europe studying the Tat system. In addition to using the Tat nanomachine to improve production of biopharmaceuticals, the consortium are studying the system in several different types of bacteria, including pathogenic species like E. coli O157 and Pseudomonas aeruginosa to explore Tat as a potential target for new antibiotics.

ENDS

Images are available on request.

About BBSRC

The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) is the UK funding agency for research in the life sciences. Sponsored by Government, BBSRC annually invests around £380 million in a wide range of research that makes a significant contribution to the quality of life for UK citizens and supports a number of important industrial stakeholders including the agriculture, food, chemical, healthcare and pharmaceutical sectors. http://www.bbsrc.ac.uk

About John Innes Centre

The JIC, Norwich, UK is an independent, world-leading research centre in plant and microbial sciences with over 800 staff. JIC carries out high quality fundamental, strategic and applied research to understand how plants and microbes work at the molecular, cellular and genetic levels. The JIC also trains scientists and students, collaborates with many other research laboratories and communicates its science to end-users and the general public. The JIC is grant-aided by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council.

About the University of East Anglia

The University of East Anglia (UEA) is an internationally renowned, research-led University with over 13,000 students.  UEA is known for its pioneering and collaborative approach to research, bringing together academics from different disciplines to create innovative research groups. The latest Research Assessment Exercise (2001) confirmed the breadth and depth of UEA's research excellence through the achievement of the top 5* or 5 ratings in eleven subject areas, with staff inclusion rates in the top 10% across the board. http://www.uea.ac.uk

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Catherine Reynolds, Press Office, Norwich BioScience Institutes

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