Oct 122011
Authors: Sarah Fenton

As a scientist, CSU Professor Herbert Schweizer was prepared to learn a few things after launching a research study examining a bacterium seen as a top biological weapon threat.

What Schweizer didn’t prepare to find, however, was an entirely new function of the bacterium, a function that gave a whole new meaning to the phrase “what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.”

As a CSU researcher for 16 years, Schweizer has specialized in antibiotic resistance. Six years ago, he began collaborating with other expert contributors from around the world in order learn more about the bacterium, Burkholderia pseudomallei.

“Back in 2001, and after some letters that were mailed were contaminated with spores, the government recognized that there is a threat out there that we have these bacteria that can cause disease and so there was more research needed,” Schweizer said.

Burkholderia pseudomallei is found in the soil of Southeast Asia and is notorious for causing the deadly disease Melioidosis.

Melioidosis has been reported in 27 different countries with an estimated 40 percent mortality rate.

Because the disease is seen in so many regions worldwide, the U.S has listed it as a top priority in terms of biological research. Because of this, Schweizer, along with his collaborators, went forward with the study. Their recently published results have not been seen anywhere else.

Over course of the six-year study, Schweizer came to the conclusion that by a complex process of DNA mutation, the bacterium was able to remove an entire segment of its DNA to evade antibiotics.

Burkholderia pseudomallei is unique in the fact that it can remove whole segments of DNA, making bacterial growth slow and weak.

The size and scale at which the bacterium did this astonished researchers because, according to Schweitzer, most bacteria use this mechanism to only “change what they need to change.”

This kind of mutation would typically mean the bacteria would die. However, for this particular bacterium, it is able to remove its DNA while maintaining its effectiveness at causing disease.

“Normally the genetic material is limited, and we saw that with this bacterium,” Schweizer said.
“The price they paid in becoming resistant was almost suicidal, that’s a very unusual mechanism.”

Although this slow growth rate may sound like a good thing, it makes melioidosis much harder to detect and diagnose. For this reason, many people in the scientific community consider this research a huge breakthrough in understanding antibiotic resistance.

Schweizer believes that his research will aid clinical labs in the detection of the disease, as well as giving treatment more direction.

For Dr. Kathy Waller, a physician at Hartshorn Health Services, this means a lot to the medical community.

“We have a lot of trouble with bacterial resistance. Any research that comes out that sheds more light on the physiology, the way that organisms mutate and helping us recognize when they have and what we need to do about it is wonderful,” Waller said.

This month Schwietzer’s research was published in the scientific serial Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Richard Lyons, director for CSU’s Infectious Disease Research Center, believes this gives CSU an important edge as a research institution.

“These very high quality bio-containment facilities that are run by the university — without them this type of research couldn’t be done,” Lyons said. “And so therefore, it puts the university in a very unique position to be extremely competitive.”

Although the possibility of Burkholderia pseudomallei affecting Colorado either naturally or as a biological weapon is small, Dr. Waller believes that CSU is equipped to handle the situation should it occur.

“We would work closely with the local county and state public health officials in the event of an outbreak or a bio-terrorism event.”

Collegian writer Sarah Fenton can be reached at news@collegian.com.

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