In a new study, scientists from UNSW Sydney show how the oldest wheel in nature, which is found in bacteria, can fix itself when things get tough.
The results, which were published today in Science Advances, show that the flagellar, which is an ancient motor that helps bacteria swim, can also help these tiny organisms adapt to situations in which their ability to move around is limited.
Bacteria are among Earth’s oldest species. Bacteria are small, single-celled organisms that may be found just about anywhere, including the human body, where they actually outnumber human cells.
The ability to move in water is essential for the survival and spread of germs. But not much is known about how the motors that make them move help them survive in dangerous places.
This is the first study to use CRISPR gene-editing technology to alter a flagellar motor. They created a sodium-driven swimming bacteria by using synthetic biology techniques to build a sodium motor onto the genome. Then, they looked at how the bacteria changed when the environment didn’t have enough sodium.
Since sodium is an ion, it has an electric charge. This charge powers the flagellar motor through ion channels or stators.
The results showed that the stators could quickly fix the flagellar motor and get the cell moving again. These results could lead to new discoveries in the fields of biology and medicine.
“We showed that environmental changes can cause ion channels to react quickly,” points out lead author Dr. Pietro Ridone.
“So, the CRISPR edits also revert quickly, and the flagellar motor evolves and then regulates itself.”
“The fact that we saw mutations directly on the stators right away is surprising, and also inspires a lot of our future research plans in this area.”
How strong molecular machines are
The human body has about 10,000 different kinds of molecular machines. These machines help the body do things like convert energy and move.
A bacterial motor is much more advanced than what humans can make at the nanoscale level. It can self-assemble and rotates up to five times as fast as a Formula 1 engine at a millionth the size of a grain of sand.
“The motor that powers bacterial swimming is a marvel of nanotechnology,” adds co-author and Associate Professor Matthew Baker. “It is the absolute poster child for ancient and very sophisticated molecular machinery.”
According to the professor, the latest results can improve our mechanistic understanding of the history of molecular motors, including how they were put together and how they adapt.
“These ancient parts are a powerful system to study evolution in general, as well as the origins and evolution of motility.”
The research, according to A/Prof. Baker, will help scientists develop novel molecular motors. The discoveries might also help us comprehend antibiotic resistance and disease pathogenicity.
“By shedding more light on life’s ancient history, we are gaining knowledge to create tools that can help better our futures,” says A/Prof. Baker, adding, “it can also lead us to insights on how bacteria might adapt under future climate change scenarios.”
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