Press release

Inter-microbial warfare may help overcome antimicrobial resistance

Published on 17 September 2019

The University of Dundee’s Dr Sarah Coulthurst will lead a £2.7 million effort to investigate whether a ‘nanoweapon’ could be deployed in the global battle against antimicrobial resistance

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The World Health Organisation recently ranked antimicrobial resistance as one of the ten biggest threats to global health. As such, there is an urgent need to develop new treatments to prevent millions of lives being lost to diseases that are routinely treated with drugs such as antibiotics at present.

Dr Coulthurst and colleagues at Dundee, Newcastle, Heriot-Watt and Exeter universities and the Hans Knöll Institute in Germany have received a Wellcome Trust Collaborative Award to study the Type VI secretion system, a piece of molecular machinery that can be used by bacteria to kill fungal cells.

This cross-institution collaboration hopes to discover exactly how this inter-microbial warfare works so that they can harness the machinery to develop better ways to tackle infections caused by bacteria and fungi.

“Infectious diseases caused by bacteria and fungi represent a major threat to global health, particularly given ever-increasing levels of antimicrobial resistance,” said Dr Coulthurst.

“Such microbial organisms normally live in mixed communities whose members interact in many different ways. We have discovered that a common bacterial weapon, the Type VI secretion system, can be used by bacteria to disable or kill fungal cells by injecting them with toxic proteins.

“We believe that this ability of bacteria to attack fungal cells, including those that cause disease, is important in many microbial communities, including those associated with health and disease. In this collaborative project, we will combine our expertise in bacterial and fungal biology with cutting-edge molecular techniques, to investigate the role played by anti-fungal Type VI secretion systems and to understand the molecular details of how these systems kill fungal cells.

“We hope that understanding how bacteria can kill fungi might allow us to develop better ways to tackle antimicrobial-resistant infections caused by both bacteria and fungi.”

Dr Coulthurst is a Wellcome Trust Senior Research Fellow at the University’s School of Life Sciences. Her research explores how bacterial pathogens are able to successfully compete with other organisms and cause disease, aiming to provide an improved understanding of basic biological processes and, ultimately, contribute to novel therapeutic antimicrobial strategies.

Her lab recently showed how the Type VI secretion system is used to kill disease-causing fungi, including Candida albicans. This discovery paves the way for work to uncover how this weapon may be used in the fight against infections that have become resistant to antimicrobials.

Antimicrobial resistance refers to the ability of a microorganism (like bacteria, viruses and certain fungi) to stop antimicrobials (such as antibiotics, antivirals and antifungals), from working against it. As a result, standard treatments become ineffective, infections persist and may spread to others.


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Story category Research