For Salmonella and many other disease-causing bacteria that find their way into our bodies, infection begins with a poke. That’s because these bad bugs are equipped with a needle-like protein filament that punctures the outer membrane of human cells and then, like a syringe, injects dozens of toxic proteins that help them replicate.
Cammie Lesser at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, Cambridge, and her colleagues are now on a mission to bioengineer strains of bacteria that don’t cause disease to make these same syringes, called type III secretion systems. The goal is to use such “good” bacteria to deliver therapeutic molecules, rather than toxins, to human cells. Their first target is the gastrointestinal tract, where they hope to knock out hard-to-beat bacterial infections or to relieve the chronic inflammation that comes with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).
Microbes that live in dirt often engage in their own deadly turf wars, producing a toxic mix of chemical compounds (also called “small molecules”) that can be a source of new antibiotics. When he started out in science more than a decade ago, Michael Fischbach studied these soil-dwelling microbes to look for genes involved in making these compounds.
Eventually, Fischbach, who is now at the University of California, San Francisco, came to a career-altering realization: maybe he didn’t need to dig in dirt! He hypothesized an even better way to improve human health might be found in the genes of the trillions of microorganisms that dwell in and on our bodies, known collectively as the human microbiome.
Caption: Scanning electron microscopic image of Staphylococcus aureus bacteria (orange). Credit: CDC/Jeff Hageman, MHS
Over the years, people suffering from eczema have slathered their skin with lotions containing everything from avocado oil to zinc oxide. So, what about a lotion that features bacteria as the active ingredient? That might seem like the last thing a person with a skin problem would want to do, but it’s actually a very real possibility, based on new findings that build upon the growing realization that many microbes living in and on the human body—our microbiome—are essential for good health. The idea behind such a bacterial lotion is that good bugs can displace bad bugs.
Eczema is a noncontagious inflammatory skin condition characterized by a dry, itchy rash. It most commonly affects the cheeks, arms, and legs. Previous studies have suggested that the balance of microbes present on people with eczema is different than on those with healthy skin . One major difference is a proliferation of a bad type of bacteria, called Staphylococcus aureus.
Recently, an NIH-funded research team found that healthy human skin harbors beneficial strains of Staphylococcus bacteria with the power to keep Staph aureus in check. To see if there might be a way to restore this natural balance artificially, the researchers created a lotion containing the protective bacteria and tested it on the arms of volunteers who had eczema . Just 24 hours after one dose of the lotion was applied, the researchers found the volunteers’ skin had greatly reduced levels of Staph aureus. While further study is needed to learn whether the treatment can improve skin health, the findings suggest that similar lotions might offer a new approach for treating eczema and other skin conditions. Think of it as a probiotic for the skin!
While sitting in microbiology class as a college sophomore, Elaine Hsiao was stunned to learn that the human gut held between as much as 6 pounds of bacteria—twice the weight of an adult human brain. She went on to learn during her graduate studies in neurobiology that these microbes had co-evolved with humans and played important roles in our bodies, aiding digestion and immune function, for example. But more intriguing to her, by far, was new research that suggested that gut bacteria might even be influencing our thoughts, moods, and behavior.
Now a senior research fellow at the California Institute of Technology, Hsiao is launching her own effort to explore how these microbes can affect brain function—a very creative endeavor made possible through NIH’s Early Independence Award program—also known as the “skip the postdoc” award.