Horizontal gene transfer is the direct movement of sections of DNA between contacting bacteria. In transformation the DNA is secreted into the surroundings for any other bacteria to pick up. One type of bacteria known to commonly use both methods is Streptococcus pneumoniae – the cause of meningitis, pneumonia, blood poisoning and other dangerous conditions. Several antibiotic resistances have developed within these bacteria in recent years and these are spreading such that some strains are now resistant to multiple types of antibiotics. It has been noted that these spreading mechanisms can be activated by the use of antibiotics, which hinders treatment.
In the study, led by Professor Gee Lau, they were able to block a protein (named CSP) that triggers a series of events allowing bacteria to become ‘competent’ at receiving genetic material from each other. Their method was to produce synthetic compounds with a similar, but not identical, structure to CSP so that no events were triggered within the bacterium but access to CSP was reduced. This hindered the bacteria’s ability to pick up antibiotic resistance and other genes as they were no longer becoming ‘competent’.
The hope is that by reducing the spread of resistance genes, the sometimes life-threatening conditions caused by Streptococcus pneumoniae will be easier to treat, and that maybe similar approaches can be used to prevent the spread of drug resistance in other types of bacteria.