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Otago research sheds new light on key bacterial immune system

New insights into a surprisingly flexible immune system present in bacteria for combating viruses and other foreign DNA invaders have been revealed by researchers from the University of Otago and the Netherlands.

A team led by Dr Peter Fineran of the Department of Microbiology and Immunology are studying the genetic basis of adaptive immunity in bacteria that cause potato 'soft rot' and in E. coli bacteria. Through their recent collaboration they have found that these bacterial immune systems are much more robust and responsive than previously thought.

Their latest findings, which appear in the leading US journal PNAS, have implications for improving our understanding of bacterial evolution, including the spread of antibiotic resistance genes.

The researchers are investigating an adaptive immune system, termed CRISPR-Cas, which is found in half of all bacterial species and in almost all single-celled microbes in the archaea domain.

CRISPR-Cas’s role in providing immunity was only discovered in the past decade. The system creates a genetic memory of specific past infections by viruses and plasmids, which are small mobile DNA molecules that can move between organisms.

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