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'Invisible' bacteria dupe the human immune system

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19 February 2008

Scientists at the University of York have characterised an important new step in the mechanism used by bacteria to evade our immune system.

It is an 'invisibility cloak' which means that bacteria like Haemophilus influenzae, a common cause of ear infections in children, can move about the body without the risk of being attacked by the immune system.

A multidisciplinary research team from the Departments of Biology and Chemistry at York have been studying how bacteria capture the molecule used to make the 'cloak', called sialic acid.

The researchers have now discovered an enzymatic activity that helps in the more efficient capture of sialic acids released from our cell surfaces. As well as using the sialic acid to make the 'invisibility cloak' other bacteria use similar methods to capture sialic acid as a simple food source, so are literally eating us from the inside!

The research is published in the latest issue of the Journal of Biological Chemistry.

Dr Gavin Thomas, of the Department of Biology, who led the research said: "This novel enzyme, as well as other steps required for the formation of the 'invisibility cloak' that we have discovered in York, now offers the chance to develop novel antimicrobials against these bacteria."

The work, which was funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council  (BBSRC), was undertaken by Dr Emmanuele Severi (Biology – Thomas lab) in collaboration with Dr Jennifer Potts (Biology and Chemistry), Dr Andrew Leech (Biology) and Professor Keith Wilson and Dr Axel Müller (Chemistry and York Structural Biology Laboratory).

The team used the Centre for Magnetic Resonance based in the Department of Chemistry, and the Technology Facility in the Department of Biology.

ENDS

Notes to editors

The paper Sialic Acid Mutarotation Is Catalyzed by the Escherichia coli ß-Propeller Protein YjhT is available at http://www.jbc.org/current.shtml

The University of York’s Department of Biology is one of the leading centres for biological teaching and research in the UK. The Department both teaches degree courses and undertakes research across the whole spectrum of modern Biology, from molecular genetics and biochemistry to ecology. Its biomedical research includes an Immunology and Infection Unit (jointly with the Hull York Medical School), work on infertility and three research professors funded by Yorkshire Cancer Research and York Against Cancer. http://www.york.ac.uk/depts/biol

The Department of Chemistry at the University of York has an excellent reputation for teaching and research. In the last Research Assessment Exercise the department was awarded a 5 rating. It is led by Royal Society of Chemistry prize-winners in all three branches of physical, organic and inorganic chemistry. It has 46 members of academic staff, more than 380 undergraduate students, 150 graduates and 90 research fellows. More information at http://www.york.ac.uk/depts/chem.

The University of York Technology Facility is a premier research support and technology training unit in the Department of Biology. With 19 expert staff and more than £6.5 million of advanced equipment in 2,000 square metres of laboratory space, it provides access to important bioscience technology platforms for University and external researchers. http://www.york.ac.uk/depts/biol/tf/

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

External contact

David Garner, Media Information, The University of York
01904 432153

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