Preventing bacteria from causing disease
Bacteria are tiny, living organisms that play many roles in the environment. In their quest for survival and nutrition, many bacteria aid in the decomposition of dead leaves, wood, animals and also garbage. They inject nutrients into soil helping trees and other organisms grow. Similarly, bacteria in our gut helps to digest foods and we also use bacteria to make foods such as yogurt. Of course, aside from these beneficial characteristics, bacteria can also cause disease. Understanding how bacteria work—for good or bad—is the focus of Dr. Trevor Moraes, Canada Research Chair in Structural Biology of Membrane Proteins. Moraes is concentrating on membrane proteins and their roles in allowing bacteria to cause illnesses such as sepsis, pneumonias, bacterial meningitis and E. coli poisoning. Membrane proteins are associated with the biological cell membrane that separates the interior of all cells from the outside environment. They play essential roles in allowing all cells to communicate, get nutrients and, thus, grow. Moraes aims to understand how membrane proteins function at the molecular level to transport molecules within these biological membranes. To visualize membrane proteins in detail, Moraes is using technology that creates 3-D structural representations of them. This will help determine how nutrient transport works. Bacterial pathogens are responsible for nearly 250,000 health-care-associated infections in Canada annually. Moraes’s research will help reduce deaths associated with bacterial infections. It will also lead to dramatically lower health-care costs by helping scientists develop drugs that can specifically target and inhibit membrane proteins within pathogenic bacteria and, thereby, inhibit their ability to cause disease.