The scientists from St Andrews University and molecular experts at Aberdeen University have worked out a key mechanism that protects bacteria against stress, which could lead to new chemicals to fight deadly bugs like as E coli, MRSA and C difficile.
All bacteria have tiny channels in their walls, which operate like the valve on a pressure cooker. They open to release material when the pressure in a bacterial cell gets too great. If the channel did not open to relieve pressure, the bacteria would explode and die.
Professor James Naismith, who led the St Andrews team, said the joint study showed how these channels open and close.
"The channel senses the pressure inside the bacteria. As a result, the channel alters its shape and creates an opening, releasing the pressure," Scotsman quoted him, as saying.
"The motion is just like that of a camera iris and being able to see this motion is an amazing discovery.
"Not only is this a major step forward in scientific understanding of a fundamental process in biology, but it paves the way for the development of new drugs against bacteria. It is vital to the bacteria that the channel fully closes and only opens at the right times as mistakes either way would be fatal.
"New chemicals forcing channels to stay open or shut are likely to kill or, at the very least, greatly slow down the growth of bacteria. Slowing down the growth gives the body's natural defences time to tackle its bacterial invader," he added.
The possible therapeutic applications include the special cleansing of hospital equipment and wards, or helping to make food safer.