Inside Rensselaer
Putting Deadly Bacteria to Good Use
The bacteria Vibrio cholerae is notorious for the role it plays in spreading the devastating disease cholera. Its highly specialized enzymes are so perfected that it quickly spreads and proliferates in the harsh environment of the human intestines or even in the salty waters of the ocean. It is the bacteria’s incredible durability and survival that is increasingly drawing the interest of researchers around the world. One of those researchers is Blanca Barquera, assistant professor of biology.

According to Barquera, the bacteria have developed a complex series of enzyme-triggered reactions that allow it to survive in salt-rich environments like the ocean as well as the human digestive system.

“Survival in these environments means that the bacteria are able to extract the energy that they need for survival from the environment and convert it into a form that they need,” Barquera said. It is the extreme energy-converting power of V. cholerae that is the current focus of Barquera’s wide-ranging research of the bacteria.

When compared to man-made machines, the biological system proves to be much more efficient in converting energy because the conversion can occur at room temperature or lower and very little to no heat is lost in the process.  For Barquera, this could mean creating even more links between foundational biology and cutting-edge engineering, with the creation of better and more efficient machines modeled after the processes perfected by bacteria.

“As we learn more about the biologic machinery within the bacteria, we also continue to build our knowledge about how the bacteria survives and spreads,” she said. “In the far future, this could not only help to create better technologies, this knowledge could also help to develop new drugs that only affect the bacterial enzymes and not the surrounding environment or host.”

Her most recent research on the bacteria is in the Nov. 28 edition of The Journal of Biological Chemistry. The article looks at the NQR enzyme, which allows V. cholerae to survive in salt-rich environments. It is this control of sodium to the human gut that ultimately leads to huge imbalances of electrolytes in the body and the onset of rapid and often deadly diarrhea.  But, it is this same control that acts as an organic battery for the bacteria as it transfers sodium across the membrane, allowing it to survive and thrive.

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Inside Rensselaer
Volume 3, Number 1, January 16, 2009
©2009 Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
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