Could stopping this sneaky protein be the key to treating infections?

For years, scientists have been trying to identify a protein molecule that sneaks through the membrane surrounding bacteria, helping it to build strong cell walls, resist antibiotics, and make people very ill.

If they could find out what that sneaky protein (known generically as a flippase) was, they might be able to find a way to stop it in its tracks, and to go on to create new, more effective antibiotics as a result. Considering the fact that the World Health Organisation says that antibiotic resistance to poses a ‘major global threat’ to public health , that would be a huge breakthrough.

Now the authors of a new study think they’re onto something. In the 11 July issue of Science, microbiologists from Ohio State University say that they have not only witnessed the protein in action but have named it MurJ (it’s no ScarJo, but it’ll do). However, this has caused a science scandal (or at least a bit of controversy) as another group of scientists believe they’ve found the protein – and it’s an entirely different molecule. Awkward.

Eefjan Breukink, a biochemist at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, published research in the EMBO Journal in 2011 which suggested that a protein called FtsW (again, not so catchy) was the flippase scientists were looking for. But because this research was conducted in test tubes rather than in a living cell, Natividad Ruiz from the Ohio team argues that their results carry more weight.

Either way, it seems like more research is needed before we have any new life-saving drugs, but hopefully it’s just a matter of time before a certain protein’s days are numbered.

Image via University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources & Environment’s Flickr.

Diane Shipley