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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Science Note/ Bacteria: Knights in Shining Armor

Air Date: Week of
S layer bacteria. (Credit: ©VIB, 2012)

Scientists discover that bacteria’s protective sheath looks and works a lot like the chain mail used by medieval knights.


GELLERMAN: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Bruce Gellerman. Apparently, our program’s managing producer has spent too much time in the sun - she’s turned into the most boring person in the office…we’ll have that story, but first this note on emerging science from Annie Sneed.


SNEED: Around a million bacteria can fit on the head of a pin. But their tiny size hardly makes them defenseless. Scientists have discovered that bacteria have a sturdy suit of armor.
Most bacteria are enclosed in a protective layer of protein. Until recently, researchers didn’t have the technology to get a close up look at this protein coat. But now, scientists in Belgium, using high-tech imaging, can see the individual atoms of bacteria’s body armor.
The bacteria devote up to a third of their protein to build the sheath. The proteins hook together like chain mail worn by medieval knights. This mesh shield guards bacteria from attackers, such as viruses. Chinks in the chain mail allow them to take up nutrients and get rid of waste.
Some harmful bacteria, such as anthrax and the intestinal bug, C. diff, have this type of chain mail coat. Scientists next want to understand what role the armor plays in disease, so that we may better fight pathogens. But, as researchers now know, these bacteria don’t go into battle unarmed. That’s this week’s note on Emerging Science. I’m Annie Sneed.




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