The Max Planck Society for the Advancement of Science is reporting that a group of investigators from the Institute of Biochemistry in Martinsried, Germany has some news about our old friend, TB. They discovered that mycobacterial outer membrane is composed of a distinct lipid bilayer, in addition to a previously known layer of mycolic acids. This second-skin discovery might open new opportunities for developing novel antibiotics for tuberculosis, and, possibly, leprosy and other mycobacterial diseases.
The statement from Max Planck Society explains:
It has been known for some time that long-chained, strongly bound fatty acids – the mycolic acids – are necessary to preserve the resistance properties of the cell wall. But even 125 years after Koch’s discovery, our knowledge of the mycobacterial cell envelope is incomplete and characterized by contradictory hypotheses. Until recently, scientists assumed that mycolic acids form a closed layer, or that they comprise the inner part of a considerably thick and asymmetrical membrane. Now, Harald Engelhardt and his group at the Max Planck Institute of Biochemistry in Martinsried have proved that the outer cell wall layer consists of a distinct lipid bilayer. Its structure, however, is hardly compatible with the current view of the cell wall architecture.
Christian Hoffman, a PhD student in Harald Engelhardt’s lab, investigated the cell structure of Mycobacterium smegmatis and Mycobacterium bovis BCG, a close relative to the tuberculosis bacterium, in the electron microscope. The scientists were able to obtain 3-D images of the bilayer structure from intact cells by means of cryo-electron tomography, a technique that was developed at the institute in Martinsried. The method requires projection data from different angles of a shock-frozen cell (-190 °C) that are optimized for the number, contrast and focus of the images. In order to avoid radiation damage, the cell must only be exposed to the electron beam for a limited period of time. The images are thus noisy and lack contrast. The Department for Molecular Structural Biology, headed by Professor Wolfgang Baumeister, and in this case especially Jürgen Plitzko, pioneers development and research of cryo-electron tomography, which is a valuable technique to investigate structures of intact cells in a close-to-life state.
…Harald Engelhardt, the leader of the research project, agrees with previous hypotheses insofar as mycolic acids anchor the outer membrane to the cell wall. “But the membrane is probably not structured the way we thought. The mycolic and other fatty acids must be organized differently in the cell membrane than previously assumed.” The Martinsried microbiologists and structural researchers now see the need for a more detailed study of the mycobacterial outer membrane. The recent findings provide an appropriate basis for such inquiries. Because now, distinct studies investigating the translocation of molecular substances across the outer membrane have been made possible, which should also be useful for the development of chemotherapeutic drugs. Engelhardt: “After all, the drugs must pass through cell wall as effectively as possible, and a better understanding of the mycobacterial cell envelope will certainly be helpful.”
Full story: Tuberculosis bacterium is double-protected…