Bacteria use ‘biological alchemy’

Leprosy bacteria use ‘biological alchemy’

Infectious bacteria have for the primary time been caught performing “biological alchemy” to rework parts of a bunch body into those more suited for their purposes, by a team in Edinburgh.

The study, within the journal Cell, showed leprosy-causing bacteria turning nerves into stem cells and muscle.

The authors said the “clever and complicated” technique could further therapies and stem-cell research.

Experts described the invention as “amazing” and “exciting”.

Alchemists might have didn’t morph base metals into gold, but a team on the University of Edinburgh has shown that bacteria can transform parts of the body into something more valuable to them.

It is a feat that scientists have already achieved within the laboratory. Skin cells has been transformed into flexible stem cells that could become any of the body’s building blocks from heart muscle to brain cells.

One of the researchers, Prof Anura Rambukkana, said: “Our body’s cells could be manipulated and why would a bacterium not cash in on that?”

Master manipulators

Experiments on mice and cells grown within the laboratory showed the leprosy bug infected nerve cells. Then over a period of some weeks the bacteria started to subvert the nerves for his or her own ends. The chemistry of the cells changed and so they became stem cells.

These can grow and spread round the body, unlike the static nerves.

“This can be a stem cell which is generated by the body’s own tissue so the immune system doesn’t recognise it and so they can get anyplace they need without being attacked,” said Prof Rambukkana.

Those cells could lodge inside muscle and become muscle cells.

“We realised, ‘Wow, here’s something very, very striking’.

“It is the first time a bacterial infection have been shown to make stem cells, that is the big thing here.”


He hopes the findings increases understanding of leprosy and result in new ways of developing stem cells – that have been touted as future treatments for a number of diseases.

Prof Rambukkana also believes it’s “probable” that other species of bacteria would have evolved a similar ability to reprogramme their host.

Prof Chris Mason, a expert in stem cell research at University College London, said: “The flexibility of bacteria to transform one mammalian cell type to a different is ‘alchemy’ by nature on a grand scale.

“Whilst this amazing discovery is in a mouse model, it highlights the extreme complexity of the interactions between mammals and bacteria and the ingenuity of scientists to uncover disease mechanisms that a decade ago would was beyond science fiction.

“The subsequent essential step is to translate this valuable piece of data into tangible benefits for patients – a process that could take a decade before its relevance to clinical medicine is fully understood.”

Prof Diana Lockwood, from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said: “Their finding that bacteria can reprogramme cells is rather interesting and exciting.”

However, she cautioned that there has been “quite a spot between this and clinical leprosy and that i do not believe it is going to end in new treatments”.

Dr Rob Buckle, head of regenerative medicine on the Medical Research Council, said: “This discovery is vital not only for our understanding and treatment of bacterial disease, but for the rapidly progressing field of regenerative medicine.”