A team from Boston University, MIT, and Harvard discovered how the H. pylori bacteria penetrate the stomach mucus to cause ulcers in the lining.
H. pylori secretes the enzyme urease, which interacts with urea in the stomach to produce ammonia--the ammonia is what neutralizes the acids in the immediate environment. The less-acidic environment de-gels the mucin, allowing the microbe to travel through it using standard, flagella-based locomotion, much like other swimming bacteria.
To confirm their findings, the researchers placed H. pylori into an acidic mucin gel in a laboratory setting. While its flagella moved, the organism could not. After the microbes secreted urease and acidity diminished, the microbes were able to forge through the gel.
Bansil and her colleagues next want to understand the progress of H. pylori-related diseases, particularly in the context of living hosts. The team is planning to work on new imaging techniques that may reveal even greater detail about the organisms and how they inflict damage on the human body.