Vampire bacteria could become the ultimate antibiotic

A bacterium found in sewage water could revolutionize modern medicine. It's basically the bacterial equivalent of a vampire, spending its time hunting other bacteria and sucking out all their nutrients. This could revolutionize antibotics and stop the rise of "super bugs."

The bacterium in question is called Micavibrio aeruginosavorus. Scientists have known about it for a good thirty years, but it's proven extremely difficult to study using traditional techniques. University of Virginia researchers have only just managed to decode its genome and figure out how it works, and their findings are intriguing.

Micavibrio aeruginosavorus survives by finding certain other strains of bacteria. It then attaches itself to its prey's cell wall and begins leeching on the victim's nutrients. That's unusual for bacteria, most of which simply harvest nutrients from the surrounding environment. For whatever reason, that isn't an option for this bacterium, which has to rely on finding and destroying other bacteria to live. You can see it in action in the photo up top - it's the yellow bacterium feeding on the purple Pseudomonas aeruginosa.

At least one of its preferred victims is an enemy of humans. Pseudomonas aeruginosavorus causes serious lung infections in cystic fibrosis patients. It's early days yet, but the researchers say it would be possible to use Micavibrio aeruginosavorus against this deadly pathogen, injecting it nearby and allowing it to hunt down and destroy the infectious bacteria.

Chief researcher Martin Wu adds:

"Pathologists may eventually be able to use this bacterium to fight fire with fire, so to speak, as a bacterium that will aggressively hunt for and attack certain other bacteria that are extremely harmful to humans.

It is possible that a living antibiotic such as M. aeruginosavorus — because it so specifically targets certain pathogens — could potentially reduce our dependence on traditional antibiotics and help mitigate the drug-resistance problem we are now facing.

This vampire bacterium could well prove to be an extremely appealing alternative to common antibiotics, which work by inhibiting bacteria reproduction or breaking down their cell walls. The problem is that certain bacterial strains have developed resistance to these antibiotics, creating new breeds of so-called super bugs. Micavibrio aeruginosavorus is an intriguing alternative because bacteria can't build up resistance to a predator in the same way they can a traditional antibiotic.

And because this bacterium only hunts a very select number of strains, it wouldn't pose any threat to the myriad of beneficial bacteria that we rely on in our body. It also can get through difficult environments, like the viscous mucus film created by Pseudomonas aeruginosavorus, and reach its target in cases where traditional antibiotics would be significantly less effective.

Of course, the bacterium isn't yet ready to be injected into the human body. It will likely take significant genetic engineering to get it to the point where it can hunt down the desired bacteria strains while leaving others alone. But this is potentially a huge breakthrough, and the fact that we already have the genome mapped is a very encouraging start.

Via BMC Genomics. Image via the University of Virginia.