Super-microscope to help stop superbugs

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A new super-microscope is capable of seeing minute details of bacteria.

Researchers in Melbourne are a step closer to understanding drug-resistant bacteria which block the body from fighting disease.

Using a so-called super-microscope, they have been able to decipher the building blocks behind superbugs, which they hope will help create new therapies for patients.

Professor Trevor Lithgow, from Monash University's Biomedicine Discovery Institute, said it can pinpoint the cellular patterns that compromise people's immune systems and lead to potentially deadly disease.

"So now we understand exactly how it is that the bacteria are making their surface molecules, not only in terms of who does what but, in fact, how they do the job.

"And that is the absolute requirement before you can start to design molecules which would interfere with those processes and, therefore, stop a superbug from growing and, indeed, overcome it."

Through the super lens, scientists are able to see the structure of proteins, forming in precincts.

The structures then embed in the outer membrane of a bacterial cell.

It is microscopic detail that a physical chemist at Monash University Dr Toby Bell said could not be achieved with conventional imaging.

"Super-resolution imaging allows you to do that, by imaging single molecules and determining their positions to within a few nanometres.

"And then we literally build up an image, point by point, that contains millions of localisations of where fluorescent labels are within the sample."

By using Nobel Prize-winning technology, Dr Bell custom-built the super-microscope.

While the technique has been around for several years, the application to single bacteria is more recent and has now been published in the scientific journal Cell Reports.

Professor Lithgow said the multi-disciplinary work is aimed at creating a deeper understanding of drug-resistant infections, or superbugs.

"So these are bacteria that have availed themselves, through evolution, of a few new weapons to fight against us. These days, we really want to understand how these drug-resistant forms of bacteria are able to conquer these new environments they find themselves in."

With the number of antimicrobial-resistant, or drug-resistant, infections on the rise, new approaches are needed.

The Australian Infectious Diseases Centre's Dr Michael Landsberg said antimicrobial resistance is a serious global threat.

"The bacteria and viruses and other infectious diseases gradually evolve resistance as life goes on. And so this is something that occurs naturally and, under some circumstances, can be sped up. And, effectively, the drugs that we have at the moment will, at some point in the future, lose effectiveness."

Dr Bell said research bringing together physical and chemical techniques, like that being conducted at Monash University, is critical.

"The information that we can get by going almost to the molecular level, certainly down to tens of nanometres, will be vital in a molecular treatment of disease."

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