Biologists Gloria Culver at Rochester University and Keith Connolly at Harvard, thought one key to stopping the deadly bug may lie with proteins. So they studied the mechanism behind the development of bacterial ribosomes - the cell's protein-creating machine.
"We targeted the ribosomes in our research because cells and organisms cannot live if they do not make proteins, and they can't make proteins if their ribosomes aren't functioning properly," said Culver, according to a report in the journal Molecular Microbiology.
Culver and Connolly specifically worked with cultures of E. coli, an intestinal bug. While E. coli is usually harmless, some strains are resistant to antibiotics and can cause serious food poisoning, according to a Rochester statement.
They discovered that two proteins already present in E. coli cells - RbfA and KsgA -need to be in balance with each other in order for ribosomes to function.
If those proteins are present in the wrong concentrations, the ribosomes will not mature properly and will be unable to produce proteins, leading to the death of the cells.
Culver said with the discovery that KsgA and RbfA must be balanced for the cells to function properly, the next goal is to determine an effective way to disrupt that balance.
Crucially, RbfA does not exist in humans. "That may make it possible," Culver said, "to kill E. coli without having a harmful effect on people."