eLife digest | Impaired respiration elicits SrrAB-dependent programmed cell lysis and biofilm formation in Staphylococcus aureus

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Impaired respiration elicits SrrAB-dependent programmed cell lysis and biofilm formation in Staphylococcus aureus

eLife digest

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Rutgers University, United States

Millions of bacteria live on the human body. Generally these bacteria co-exist with us peacefully, but sometimes certain bacteria may enter the body and cause infections, such as gum disease or a bone infection called osteomyelitis. Many of these infections are thought to occur when the bacteria become able to form complex communities called biofilms. Bacteria living in a biofilm cooperate and make lifestyle choices as a community, so in this way, they behave like a single organism containing many cells.

A sticky glue-like material called the matrix holds the bacteria in a biofilm together. This matrix protects the bacteria in the biofilm from both the human immune system and antibiotics, allowing infections to develop and making them difficult to treat.

Previous research has shown that the supply and level of oxygen in infected tissues decreases as an infection gets worse. One bacterium that typically lives peacefully on our bodies, called Staphylococcus aureus, can sometimes cause serious biofilm-associated infections. S. aureus forms biofilms more readily when oxygen is in short supply, but it was not known how these biofilms form. Understanding how S. aureus forms biofilms could help scientists develop better treatments for bacterial infections.

Most bacterial cells have a cell wall to provide them with structural support. Mashruwala et al. found that, when oxygen levels are low, S. aureus decreases the production of a type of sugar that makes up the cell wall. At the same time, the bacteria produce more of an enzyme that breaks down cell walls. Together, these processes cause some of the bacteria cells to break open. The contents of these broken cells, including their DNA, help form the matrix that will hold together and protect the other bacterial cells in the biofilm. The experiments also identified a protein called SrrAB that switches on the process that ruptures the cells when oxygen is low.

The findings of Mashruwala et al. show how bacteria grown in the laboratory form biofilms when they are starved of oxygen. The next steps following on from this work are to find out whether the same thing happens when bacteria infect animals and whether drugs that block the rupturing of bacterial cells could be used to treat infections.

DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.7554/eLife.23845.002