COSAM News Articles 2023 January Breaking the Bonds: Researchers from Auburn Physics Uncover Molecular Secrets of Dangerous Bacterial Infections

Breaking the Bonds: Researchers from Auburn Physics Uncover Molecular Secrets of Dangerous Bacterial Infections

Published: 01/31/2023

Scientists at Auburn University have made a breakthrough in the fight against antibiotic-resistant bacteria with a new study on the molecular origins of mechanostability during bacterial infections. In the study, they investigate the interaction between bacterial and human cell proteins. The interaction is known to play a significant role in the development of hospital-acquired infections, offering possible routes for the development of a new class of antimicrobial therapies that target these proteins.

Auburn biophysicist, Rafael C. Bernardi, who is an assistant professor in the Department of Physics, led a team whose research is featured in the cover of the prestigious Journal of the American Chemical Society (JACS) as seen in the photo to the right. The article, Molecular Origins of Force-Dependent Protein Complex Stabilization during Bacterial Infections, discusses how Staph bacteria can cling to human cells creating bonds that can resist for many hours under high shear forces. Using a dynamic network analysis approach, developed in Bernardi’s group, they identify the amino acid contacts that are essential in creating stable mechanical dissociation paths.

The study also shows how dissociation pathways can vary significantly depending on biochemical and mechanical factors. Using an in silico single-molecule force spectroscopy approach based on molecular dynamics simulations, the study shows how the Staph adhesins use a catch-bond mechanism to increase complex stability with increasing mechanical stress. These adhesins are a family of proteins that are found in the surface of Staph bacteria, which are responsible for anchoring the bacteria to their host, us humans.

“This research is an important step in understanding the molecular mechanisms used by bacteria to infect their hosts and developing new therapeutic avenues to prevent and treat infections,” said Bernardi. “Our computational models are based on experimental biophysics and biochemistry data, and the mechanism suggested in our research was validated using machine learning techniques.”

In addition to Bernardi, the team includes Marcelo Melo and Diego Gomes, who are both postdoctoral researchers at Auburn’s Computational Biophysics Group led by Bernardi.

Melo highlights that “the use of molecular dynamics is essential to understand how the unbinding mechanisms in this catch-bond can be so different. We couldn’t get here using structural information alone, and the machine learning models show how informative correlations of motion are when studying molecular interactions.”

The research dives into how proteins interact and how they can develop into serious infections especially on medical implants after the surgical process occurs. “This research provides insights as to how Staphylococcus epidermidis interacts with its host and gives us essential information on how to fight these dangerous infection,” Bernardi said. “The real-world application could impact patients in hospitals after surgery as well guide the development of a new class of antibiotics to treat staph infections.”

This groundbreaking research was funded by Bernardi’s National Science Foundation CAREER Award.  


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