How Helicobacter pylori maintains its shape

One protein adds the all-important twist to a common helical-shaped bacterium that lives in the stomach.
Digest
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3D model of H. pylori cell surface in front of microscopy image of the bacteria showing cell walls (blue) and CcmA protein (yellow). Image credit: Taylor et al. (CC BY 4.0)

Round spheres, straight rods, and twisting corkscrews, bacteria come in many different shapes. The shape of bacteria is dictated by their cell wall, the strong outer barrier of the cell. As bacteria grow and multiply, they must add to their cell wall while keeping the same basic shape. The cells walls are made from long chain-like molecules via processes that are guided by protein scaffolds within the cell. Many common antibiotics, including penicillin, stop bacterial infections by interrupting the growth of cell walls.

Helicobacter pylori is a common bacterium that lives in the gut and, after many years, can cause stomach ulcers and stomach cancer. H. pylori are shaped in a twisting helix, much like a corkscrew. This shape helps H. pylori to take hold and colonize the stomach.

It remains unclear how H. pylori creates and maintains its helical shape. The helix is much more curved than other bacteria, and H. pylori does not have the same helpful proteins that other curved bacteria do. If H. pylori grows asymmetrically, adding more material to the cell wall on its long outer side to create a twisting helix, what controls the process?

To find out, Taylor et al. grew H. pylori cells and watched how the cell walls took shape. First, a fluorescent dye was attached to the building blocks of the cell wall or to underlying proteins that were thought to help direct its growth. The cells were then imaged in 3D, and images from hundreds of cells were reconstructed to analyze the growth patterns of the bacteria’s cell wall.

A protein called CcmA was found most often on the long side of the twisting H. pylori. When the CcmA protein was isolated in a dish, it spontaneously formed sheets and helical bundles, confirming its role as a structural scaffold for the cell wall. When CcmA was absent from the cell of H. pylori, Taylor et al. observed that the pattern of cell growth changed substantially.

This work identifies a key component directing the growth of the cell wall of H. pylori and therefore, a new target for antibiotics. Its helical shape is essential for H. pylori to infect the gut, so blocking the action of the CcmA protein may interrupt cell wall growth and prevent stomach infections.