Hijacking Bacterial Infection Nanomachines

Danny Ward 23rd July 2019

I’m Danny and I am a molecular microbiology PhD student at the John Innes Centre and the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England. In this article, I’m going to talk a little bit about a lesser known aspect of bacteria and my main area of research called **the type III secretion system.**

Outside of microbiology, many will probably never have heard of this system and even fewer knows what it does, but it’s one of the most important for many bacteria for allowing them to infect their targets. These targets can include things like us humans, other animals and plants.

The type III secretion system looks and functions like a tiny biological needle or syringe. When an appropriate target is in range, this system activates and assembles. These syringes are primed and ready to go, dotted across the membrane of the bacteria. From here, they can physically penetrate their target cell and inject nasty things called ‘effect proteins’ which act like toxins. They allow the bacteria to infect and colonise their target cells.

It’s important that we understand how bacteria can infect so that we can fight back against the bug better. With antibiotic resistance on the rise, developing new drugs, medicines and agents to stop bacteria in their tracts is very important. The black death (caused by the bacteria Yersinia pestis), some stomach bugs (E. coli, Salmonella and Shigella), Melioidosis from polluted water (by Burkholderia) and the STI Chlamydia are all examples of nasty diseases caused by bacteria which infect us using their type III secretion systems.

I work with bacteria called Pseudomonas to help me understand these tiny biological needles better. This is a bug that is a big issue in healthcare and in agriculture, and it’s also similar to many other nasty diseases so we can, and need to, learn a lot from it.

I’m looking at how this system activates, regulated and functions in regard to a newly discovered type III secretion system protein and signalling molecule interaction. By understanding this possible regulation of the system, we can use this as a target for future drug discovery. If we can hijack the system which the bacteria use to turn the infection system on and off, then so can we. This would have large positive benefits for patients infected with the disease and for farmers growing crops at risk from bacteria which infect using the type III secretion system.

Over the course of my PhD, I am aiming to understand how this new potential regulation mechanism of the type III secretion system works, how important it is, and how we can then translate that knowledge to future applications.

I’m currently using a traditional paper lab book to record my experiments, as that is the policy of my institution, but I am in the process of trying the academic free-access of Labstep alongside this to see if it might be a suitable addition for our labs own needs.

You can follow me on my journey to see how the research is going on Twitter and Instagram (@DannyJamesWard) and on my personal website dannyjamesward.wixsite.com.

This research is funded by the UKRI Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council Norwich Research Park Biosciences Doctoral Training Partnership.

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