How do bacteria defend themselves against viruses?

The CRISPR-Cas system in some bacteria helps to form an effective barrier to invading viruses.
Digest
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A transmission electron microscopy image of bacteriophages taken at The University of Alabama’s Optical Analysis Facility. Image credit: Chou-Zheng and Hatoum-Aslan, 2019 (CC BY 4.0)

Just as humans are susceptible to viruses, bacteria have their own viruses to contend with. These viruses – known as phages – attach to the surface of bacterial cells, inject their genetic material, and use the cells’ enzymes to multiply while destroying their hosts.

To defend against a phage attack, bacteria have evolved a variety of immune systems. For example, when a bacterium with an immune system known as CRISPR-Cas encounters a phage, the system creates a ‘memory’ of the invader by capturing a small snippet of the phage’s genetic material. The pieces of phage DNA are copied into small molecules known as CRISPR RNAs, which then combine with one or more Cas proteins to form a group called a Cas complex. This complex patrols the inside of the cell, carrying the CRISPR RNA for comparison, similar to the way a detective uses a fingerprint to identify a criminal. Once a match is found, the Cas proteins chop up the invading genetic material and destroy the phage.

There are several different types of CRISPR-Cas systems. Type III systems are among the most widespread in nature and are unique in that they provide a nearly impenetrable barrier to phages attempting to infect bacterial cells. Medical researchers are exploring the use of phages as alternatives to conventional antibiotics and so it is important to find ways to overcome these immune responses in bacteria. However, it remains unclear precisely how Type III CRISPR-Cas systems are able to mount such an effective defense.

Chou-Zheng and Hatoum-Aslan used genetic and biochemical approaches to study the Type III CRISPR-Cas system in a bacterium called Staphylococcus epidermidis. The experiments showed that two enzymes called PNPase and RNase J2 played crucial roles in the defense response triggered by the system. PNPase helped to generate CRISPR RNAs and both enzymes were required to help to destroy genetic material from invading phages.

Previous studies have shown that PNPase and RNase J2 are part of a machine in bacterial cells that usually degrades damaged genetic material. Therefore, these findings show that the Type III CRISPR-Cas system in S. epidermidis has evolved to coordinate with another pathway to help the bacteria survive attack from phages. CRISPR-Cas immune systems have formed the basis for a variety of technologies that continue to revolutionize genetics and biomedical research. Therefore, along with aiding the search for alternatives to antibiotics, this work may potentially inspire the development of new genetic technologies in the future.