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Caterpillars tell us how bacteria cause disease

Caterpillars and other invertebrates are helping to provide a cheap, easy and safe way to identify the genes which help bacteria cause infections in humans. Researchers from the University of Bath have discovered a way to sort through large numbers of bacterial gene sequences by testing them in caterpillars to see how their immune systems respond. This new technique known as Rapid Virulence Annotation (RVA) allows them to pinpoint the genes which code for virulence.

With millions of species worldwide, insects provide a massive pool of hosts for bacterial diseases. The immune system of insects is very similar to the inborn immune system of mammals. By living first in insects some bacteria have evolved to survive immune system attack, so when they invade mammals they are equipped to deal with their immune system response and are able to spread rapidly. It is thought this is how bacteria, such as Yersinia pestis ?the cause of plague, could have evolved to wreak havoc in humans.

Dr Nick Waterfield, who is leading the study, explained: "Bacteria have been interacting with simple animals such as amoeba and insects for a staggering length of evolutionary time. It seems likely that most virulence genes around today probably first evolved to work against these hosts".

With funding from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council's (BBSRC) Exploiting Genomics Initiative, Dr Waterfield and his team are using the similarities between insect immune systems and animal immune systems to their advantage by developing RVA - a new way to investigate the genetic basis of 'virulence' factors in insect pathogens. Instead of looking at the whole genome ?which codes for the entire bacteria, Dr Waterfield's team fragment the genome and insert different genes into a harmless laboratory bacterium which they then insert into caterpillars and other invertebrates to study their immune response.

"We are very excited by the opportunities that
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Source:Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council


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