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September 28, 2000

Discovery could produce new way of fighting harmful bacteria

Pitt researchers announced that they have discovered an entirely new type of catenane in a virus that infects bacteria. Catenanes are rare molecular structures that link molecules in interlocking rings. The findings, which could open the door to a new way of fighting harmful bacteria through "phage therapy," are detailed in the Sept. 22 edition of Science.

The newly discovered catenanes are made of protein, and help create the protective outer shell of bacterial viruses, called bacteriophages. Previously, catenanes had been observed only in DNA and small organic structures.

Bacteriophages, the most abundant form of life on Earth, are microscopic creatures that vaguely resemble tadpoles, with a prominent head and tail, according to Roger W. Hendrix, professor of biology and co-director of the Pittsburgh Bacteriophage Institute at Pitt. The proteins in their outer shell, called a capsid, are joined in an unusual ringed pattern similar to chain mail that provides the capsid with increased stability.

Earlier experiments had strongly suggested the presence of such interlinked rings, but it was only with the new results that it has become possible to see the tiny structure directly, understand what makes it so strong and determine how it gets assembled from its parts. The researchers used a high-resolution technique, x-ray crystallography.

The research, by Hendrix and Pitt researcher Robert L. Duda, with colleagues from The Scripps Research Institute, the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Laboratory and the University of Uppsala, focused on a specific bacteriophage, HK97, but the findings are likely applicable to the entire class of tailed phages, called caudovirales.

"Phages are useful in a lot of different applications, from being 'guinea pigs' for basic biomedical research to practical applications in diagnostics and therapy," said Hendrix.

Filed under: Feature,Volume 33 Issue 3

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