Research News

Researchers learn how the cancer-causing stomach bacterium <em>Helicobacter</em> maintains its shape

New insights could lead to specialized antibiotic treatments
February 7, 2020

NSF-funded scientists reporting in the journal eLife have revealed that they are closer to understanding a risk factor for stomach cancer: how the bacterium Helicobacter pylori maintains its shape.

About half the world's population is chronically infected with H. pylori, a bacterium whose helical, or corkscrew, shape allows it to burrow into the mucus lining of the stomach.

"Shape is important to the survival of bacteria," said Jong-on Hahm, a program director in NSF's Division of Graduate Education.

Scientists have long wondered how H. pylori becomes helical. Investigators at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, Washington, used fluorescence microscopy to discover how the shape develops.

"We're really excited about the fact that we're starting to understand the molecular biophysical mechanism by which H. pylori maintains its helical shape," said Nina Salama, the bacteriologist who led the study. Her group demonstrated that H. pylori's corkscrew shape is essential for its ability to infect the stomach.

A molecular understanding of how different bacteria species acquire their characteristic shapes could provide insights needed to develop better-targeted antibiotics.

More information about the research may be found on the Fred Hutchinson website.