UGA researchers have received a five-year, $1.9 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to study the bacterium Mycoplasma pneumoniae, the leading cause of pneumonia in older children and young adults.
A fundamental goal of the new research project is to better understand how the bacterium eludes the immune system and common antibiotic treatment, which often can lead to persistent infection or life-altering conditions like asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
“These bacteria have evolved to live in the human respiratory tract and have developed ways to avoid the natural defenses that keep us safe,” said Duncan Krause, principal investigator for the project and professor of microbiology in UGA’s Franklin College of Arts and Sciences. “We want to understand the chemical features of Mycoplasma pneumoniae and the conditions inside the human body that cause these persistent infections so we can one day develop more effective treatments.”
Krause and his team of collaborators particularly are interested in how M. pneumoniae moves within human airways. The bacterium travels like a rock climber, attaching and releasing chemical bonds as it traverses human tissues one foothold at a time. Eventually, the bacteria reach areas of the respiratory tract where new chemical bonds allow it to stick and multiply, leading to infection and illness.
The research team will examine the molecular features of both M. pneumoniae and the surface of the human airway to determine why they glide over certain areas and are static on others.
The researchers will examine M. pneumoniae behavior on specially designed surfaces created in the laboratory that imitate the distribution of sugar molecules in the human airway. Some parts of the surfaces will contain glycans that the bacterium tends to glide on, while others will contain glycans to which it adheres and remains static.
By placing the bacterium in this microbial obstacle course, the researchers can observe changes in M. pneumoniae gliding behavior as it travels over different densities of sugar molecules. The team will use advanced microscopy techniques to carefully analyze the bonds created between the bacterium and the various sugar molecules in the specially engineered dish.
Following these experiments, the researchers will employ a model that uses real epithelial cells, which they can grow in a dish to mimic human bronchial airways.