Researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have discovered that a single atom - a calcium, has power over how bacteria walk.
Bacteria can swim, propelling themselves through fluids using a whip-like extension called a flaggella. They can also walk, strolling along solid surfaces using little fibrous legs called pili.
It is this motility that enables some pathogenic bacteria to establish the infections - such as meningitis - that cause their human hosts to get sick or even die
By resolving the structure of a protein involved in the movement of the opportunitistic human pathogen Pseudomonas aeruginosa, the researchers identified a spot on the bacteria, that when blocked, can stop it in its tracks.
According to researchers, the finding identifies a key step in the process by which bacteria infect their hosts, and could one day lead to new drug targets to prevent infection.
"When it comes down to it, a single atom makes all the difference," said senior study author Matthew R. Redinbo, professor of chemistry, biochemistry and biophysics at UNC.
The findings appear in the Dec. 28, 2009, early online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.