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Morgan Langille and Fiona Brinkman

Graduate student Morgan Langille and molecular biologist Fiona Brinkman are part of a research team trying to explain how disease-causing bacteria become superbugs.

Turning superbugs into benign bacteria

January 22, 2009

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SFU molecular biologist Fiona Brinkman and her graduate student Morgan Langille are members of a research team that recently discovered that phages–a class of viruses that infect bacteria–can confer superbug capabilities on the microorganisms.

Brinkman says the team’s research could help explain why disease-causing bacteria become more virulent. It could also lead to new approaches for treating infectious diseases.

"If we can figure out how to help bacteria fight off or shut down phages that infect them and turn them into bad bugs we could potentially save many lives," says Brinkman.

"Targeting the disease-causing gene clusters more specifically with drugs, rather than killing both good and bad bacteria in our bodies with non-specific antibiotic drugs, could also reduce antibiotic resistance. New therapies could convert the bacteria into milder forms, rather than killing them."

Langille developed computer programs enabling the researchers to pinpoint clusters of genes that strengthen a bacterium’s disease-causing abilities. The software detected features of these gene clusters, or genomic islands, that are distinctly different from the bacteria’s general genomic make-up. These genomic islands proved to be phage.

The Liverpool Epidemic bacterial strain used in the study causes virulent lung infections that are particularly deadly and infectious in children with Cystic Fibrosis, a genetic disease that affects lung function. This strain appears to be epidemic due to capabilities acquired from phage.

Scientists from the University of Liverpool, UBC, Laval University and The Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute also contributed to the study, which Genome Research has published online at http://www.genome.org/.

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