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Holiday Lectures on Science: Bacteria's Deadly Design (video)

Lecture by C. Erec Stebbins, Associate Professor, The Rockefeller University

When it comes to the evolution of life on earth, those who have been here longest have seniority. And after four billion years, bacteria reign supreme. Unfortunately for us, some of them have been using that time to scheme at invading our bodies and outsmarting our cells. Bacteria make up the largest part of the biosphere, outnumbering plants and animals by trillions. They even outnumber the cells in your own body. They have become adept at forming relationships with animals, often cooperative business relationships that help both organisms.

But while most bacteria are good for the planet — they play a major role in sustaining and shaping life on Earth — some are not so nice. Some inject toxins into your body and hijack your cells in order to reproduce. And thanks to the beauty of evolution, they've developed a sophisticated, sinister way to do that: with a tiny protein syringe capable of penetrating your cells' protective membranes. Earth's early nanotechnology.

This "virulence device," protruding from bacteria such as Salmonella, E. coli and Yersinia pestis, is capable of injecting proteins into the hosts' cells that can take over their machinery and manipulate them like a puppet. Some proteins tell the cells to invite more bacteria in, forcing the cells to be an unwitting aide to their own demise. Others take over the cell cycle and command the cell to self-destruct. The nano-syringe, along with the proteins that pass through it, is one of the primary ways by which bacteria communicate with and control their environment.

Rockefeller University's C. Erec Stebbins studies the methods by which bacteria target and infect their hosts. In his Laboratory of Structural Microbiology, Dr. Stebbins and his lab members use techniques from biochemistry, microbial cell biology and x-ray crystallography to uncover the molecular architecture that enables bacteria to spread disease.

Having the blueprints for these nanostructures allows scientists to understand how they work. And understanding how bacteria work helps researchers develop the antibiotics to stop them from making people sick. Join Dr. Stebbins for a presentation on the biology behind infectious bacteria — a product of evolution that is both beautiful and frightening.

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