A Virginia Tech biologist proposes to use a physics strategy called resonant activation to nudge dormant bacteria cells into a stage where they will be sensitive to antibiotics.
In medicine, resonance means the sound the doctor hears when he or she thumps your chest. In physics, resonance is a periodic force or an oscillation whose frequency is close to that of a natural system's frequency. Sound waves are an example of a natural system that can be altered with resonant activation.
Jianhua Xing, an assistant professor of biological sciences at Virginia Tech who has studied more than a smattering of physics, was considering the problem of antibiotic resistance when he remembered a physics paper on resonant activation that he had read as a student.
One strategy bacterial colonies use to survive antibiotics is to create a few persister cells. Because these cells are dormant or grow very slowly, they can dodge an antibiotic attack that requires active cell wall growth to be effective. Persister cells convert to normally growing cells at a random and slow rate so that there are always a few that remain dormant until the antibiotics are gone. Extending antibiotic treatment can be a dangerous strategy because of severe side effects, such as liver damage.
Persister cells have multiple steady states, with fluctuations in the numbers of proteins as they transition to a normal cell. Xing viewed this fluctuation during synthesis and degradation of proteins as a potential target for resonant activation. Instead of a sound wave or electronic signal, the perturbing signal would be repetitive antibiotic treatment.
Xing's student, Yan Fu, a second year graduate student in the Interdisciplinary Program of Genetics, Bioinformatics, and Computational Biology at Virginia Tech; and another student, Meng Zhu of the School of Computing at Clemson University, created a computer simulation to compare different strategies of periodic antibio
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