How do bacteria evade antibiotics?

  • Date

    Tue 5 Feb 19

Dr Vassiliy Bavro

Dr Vassiliy Bavro is a structural biologist from the School of Life Sciences who will be giving a talk at Colchester’s Café Scientifique on Wednesday 13th February, 7pm at The Minories. Ahead of his appearance, Dr Bavro gives us a taste of his talk, “How do bacteria evade antibiotics?"

Q: Your research is focused on antibiotic resistance and ways to fight it, what are your key findings so far?

A: Antibiotic resistance has been identified as one of the most important threats to humanity in the 21st century. In my lab we are specifically looking at the one of the key mechanisms of resistance in bacteria – the one that involves the active pumping of compounds (including antibiotics) out of their cells.
We are trying to unveil the molecular structures of the bacterial proteins that provide that function – we call them “efflux pumps” because they function in similar way, that is using energy to remove the antibiotics from the cell thus preventing them from acting on their targets.
We have recently revealed the structures of several such assemblies and discovered the way their components come together to create these microscopic machines. I will discuss the implications these structures have to finding new ways to combat resistance.

Q: Why did you focus on this particular area of biology and what do you find most fascinating about it?

A: Antibiotic resistance is a very broad topic which has attracted a lot of attention lately, but my interest in the problem has been sparked by the elegance of the structure of one particular protein that is a key component in the aforementioned “pumps”, named TolC, which has been solved by the groups of Prof. Koronakis and Prof. Luisi back in the 2000s.The unique architecture of the TolC protein, underpins the central role it plays in a multitude of efflux pumps where it provides an exit-duct for proteins and drugs out of the bacterial cell ignited my interest in the field and led me to join the group of Ben Luisi in Cambridge in the now distant year 2003.

I have been researching the field for over 15 years now and it never ceases to impress me just how ingenious these molecular systems are and how efficient they are in counteracting even most advanced drugs that we design! It is equally fascinating how far we have advanced in our understanding of these complex systems and how much more we have to still find out!

Q: Why is your research so important and how do you think the problem of antibiotic resistance will evolve in the future?

A: I don’t think my research is more important than anyone else’s, but the task we are facing is truly gargantuan and every effort is essential as we have a ticking time-bomb on our hands!
Bacterial-related deaths have all but disappeared as a cause of death in the developed world in the second-half of the 20th century, but this will not be the case in the near future unless we mobilise resources and engage the public as well as the scientific community. Bacteria are fast-evolving, but we have the benefit of knowledge-driven discovery and modern biology and chemistry on our side, so I am cautiously optimistic about the future.

Q: What is the cause of increasing antibiotic resistance?

A: In simple terms, the basic driving force of evolution in the form of mutations and the selective pressure from the wide-spread usage of antibiotics combine resulting in proliferation of bacteria which are resistant to some antimicrobial drugs. Our globalised and interconnected world provides more opportunities for drug-resistant pathogens to spread and exchange genetic information between themselves, further exacerbating the problem.
However this is not a new process. Bacteria have been fighting this evolutionary race against other bacteria and microorganisms for billions of years.

Q: What can we do about it?

A: Come to the Café Scientifique evening and find out!

Q: How does your research affect the general public? Who should come to your talk?

A: Our research deepens our knowledge and understanding of the processes behind bacterial resistance.
It allows us to understand how and where the antibiotics act or are deactivated on a molecular level. As such it underpins further research into developing new antibiotics. The talk is open for wider audience which may be interested in basic biology and molecular structure, as well as the broader implications of resistance in modern society.

Q: How are you are feeling about your talk? What do you hope to achieve from the session?

A: I am looking forward to it! I hope to engage with the audience and I am as interested in their questions and views on this global issue, as I hope they are in finding out about my research highlights.

This article was prepared by Multimedia Journalism student Magdalena Adamkova as part of a work placement.