ENMU research team studying how bacteria relate to humans

Argen Duncan

The workings of bacteria could shed light on how to combat human digestive problems as well as antibiotic-resistant diseases, and an Eastern New Mexico University research team is seeking the beginnings of the answers.

Professor of Biology Manuel Varela and his lab team of students and a post-doctoral researcher study two topics: How microbes eat and how bacteria avoid death by poison.

Bacteria eating

In the first topic, Varela said, the researchers study how bacteria take in sugar to produce energy. They work with a harmless version of E. coli.

“There’s only a few bad-boy E. coli that give the rest a bad name,” Varela said.

He said the scientists try to make mutant E. coli that have appetites for different sugars. Then they study what differences in the bacteria’s proteins caused the change in appetite.

The work applies to humans in that the proteins people use to absorb nutrients are almost identical to the proteins bacteria use. If researchers can figure out how bacterial digestion works, Varela said, they can figure out how human digestion works.

“But it’s much easier to study bacteria than it is to study humans,” he said.

The knowledge could apply to such things as diabetes and lactose intolerance.

Also, bacteria play a vital role in the fermentation of beer and wine and the creation of ethanol for fuel. They also can be coaxed into making gas, medicine and plastics.

Once he learns how bacteria process sugars, Varela continued, other researchers can discover how to feed the microbes to make them create the desired product.

Bacteria avoiding death

For the second topic, Varela said, he and his team work with the “efflux pumps” several types of bacteria use to remove antibiotics from their insides, thus being antibiotic-resistant.

“We want to circumvent antibiotic resistance in bacteria,” Varela said.

The team studies efflux pumps in salmonella, the bacteria that causes cholera and Methicillin-resistant staph bacteria, or MRSA. They use procedures and equipment that ensure the bacteria doesn’t infect anyone.

The researchers clone genes that code for efflux pumps, insert those genes into the harmless E. coli and measure how efficiently the pumps remove antibiotics. The team hopes to identify the pumps and study how they work.

Varela said they aim to identify targets that other researchers can use to develop efflux pump inhibitors.

For instance

As an example of the research, master’s student Jody Floyd said her research involves cloning a gene from MRSA. That gene, which is present in all staph bacteria, has the potential to create efflux pumps that will remove any antibiotic.

She said she’s studying whether that gene is expressed more in MRSA than in less-resistant staph to learn if it plays a major role in the antibiotic resistance.

Also, post-doctoral researcher Sanath Kumar said the lab staff is researching cholera. Dangerous and benign versions of the bacteria exist, and the harmful variety metabolizes a particular type of sugar more slowly. The researchers are trying to find the reason for that behavior, he said.