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Dr Richard Cooper
Dr Richard Cooper
The appearance of bacteria producing polymers growing on agar plates
The appearance of bacteria producing polymers growing on agar plates

Press Release - 17 July 2008

Bacterial polymers may hold key to curing diseases, say researchers.

A University of Bath scientist has made new discoveries about bacteria which could change the way some diseases are treated.

Dr Richard Cooper, from the Department of Biology & Biochemistry, has spent the past three years studying polymers – the water-absorbing gel that surrounds most bacteria and needed by them to infect hosts ranging from humans to food crop plants.

A paper by Dr Cooper and his colleagues, explaining the findings has been published in the leading science journal, Current Biology.

The team found that, as well as protecting bacteria from dehydration and toxic compounds, the polymers go further by preventing defence systems from being activated. They do this by binding to calcium, which plays a key role in the functioning of all cells.

Dr Cooper said: “Calcium plays a key role in signalling to turn on the defence systems, whether in people or in crops. The polymers remove part of the calcium and therefore suppress defence systems from being triggered.

“This is a new perspective of the role of these polymers – from a role of protector of bacteria to that of defence suppression. It puts them on a different plane.

“This could focus people to see them as a target and have wide-reaching implications for the way we treat certain diseases.”

A team of three from Bath worked on the project and were part of an international research collaboration involving universities in Copenhagen, Naples, Basel as well as Oxford .

They studied bacteria which cause diseases as wide as cystic fibrosis and gut infections in humans, death of insects, and yield loss in major world crops such as banana, rice, tomato and bean.

The polymers are also important in beneficial interactions such as nitrogen-fixing bacteria.

Dr Cooper said: “It was a complex and ambitious piece of research and I’m delighted that we’ve reached this stage and have been accepted by one of the major wide-reaching journals.

It was great to have a hypothesis, based partly on common structures of these polymers, and see it through.

“Anything that you learn about a disease can potentially lead to treatment and these polymers could be disease control targets.”

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