Bacterial mutations manipulated at KU Leuven


Scientists at KU Leuven have successfully manipulated the speed at which mutations form, which could lead to new treatments for infections and cancer

Ramping up the effects

Researchers from the University of Leuven have discovered that the speed at which bacteria mutate – make changes in their DNA codes – is flexible and can thus be manipulated. The findings could lead to an improvement in the production of biofuel as well as in the treatment of bacterial infections and cancer.

When under stress, bacteria mutate to produce one or more DNA variants that make it possible for them to survive and reproduce. As mutating weakens them, they have to find a balance in the speed of mutation. If the cell mutates too quickly, it can die – a process called hypermutation.

The Leuven researchers examined hypermutation in the gut bacteria E. coli, exposing it to high concentrations of ethanol – which triggers hypermutation. They found that the bacteria mutate more quickly with higher concentrations of ethanol. As soon as the danger is past, the bacteria try to revert to their normal state, without hypermutation.

The study, published in the eLife journal, enabled the researchers to select E. coli mutants that are very resistant to ethanol, which is important for biofuel production. To produce biofuel, sugar is converted into ethanol. E. coli bacteria can convert sugars into ethanol but are eventually killed by the ethanol they produce.

The findings could also be applied to bacterial resistance against antibiotics and of cancer cells to chemotherapy. Bacteria and cancer cells protect themselves against drugs by mutating. Blocking hypermutation could mean a possible treatment.

Photo: VeeDunn/Flickr