The amazing bacterial “guided missiles” scientists want to harness

A team led by the Berkeley Lab is researching strange nanomachines produced by bacteria that could accelerate the path of microbiome science.

Imagine that there are arrows that are lethal when fired at your enemies but they are harmless if they fall on your friends. It’s easy to see how this cool feature of war would be, if it were real. However, something like these stocks does exist, and they’re being used in wars … just on a different scale.

These weapons are called tail remnants, and reality is almost stranger than fiction.

“Tailocins are extremely powerful protein nanomachines made by bacteria,” explained Vivek Motalek, a research scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Laboratory). They look like phages but do not contain a capsid, and they are the ‘head’ of the phage that contains viral DNA and the mechanism of replication. So, it is like a spring-loaded needle, and it goes and sits on the target cell, and then appears to penetrate all the way through the cell membrane and pierce In the cytoplasm, so the cell loses its ions and their contents and collapses. “

There is a variety of bacteria capable of producing tail, and they seem to do so under conditions of stress. Since the tail is lethal only to certain strains – so specific, in fact, that it has earned the nickname “bacterial guided missiles” – the tools of the tail appear to be a tool that bacteria use to compete with their competitors. Given their similarity to phages, scientists believe that tylocins are produced by DNA that was originally inserted into the bacterial genome during viral infection (viruses give their host instructions to make more of themselves), and over time, the bacteria got rid of parts of the phage’s DNA that were not Not useful but keep the parts that can be chosen for its own benefit.

But, unlike most abilities that are chosen through evolution, the tail does not save the individual. According to Motalek, bacteria are killed if they produce tylocinate, just as if they were infected with a real phage virus, because the pointed nanoparticles burst through the membrane to exit the producing cell like proliferating viral particles. But once released, the tail-tail targets only specific strains, protecting other cells from the host’s lineage.

“They benefit relatives, but the individual is sacrificed, which is a type of altruistic behavior. But we do not yet understand how this phenomenon occurs in nature,” Mutlaq said. Scientists also don’t know exactly how Tailocin’s stab needle press works.

These topics, and Tailocins as a whole, are a hot research area due to the many possible applications. Motalek and colleagues in the Biosciences District at Berkeley Lab, together with collaborators at the University of California, Berkeley, are interested in harnessing the tail to better study the microbiome. Other groups are keen to use Tailocins as an alternative to traditional antibiotics – which randomly eliminate beneficial strains along with the bad and are increasingly ineffective due to the evolution of drug-resistant traits.

In their latest research paper, the Berkeley collaborative team explored the genetic basis and the physical mechanisms governing how tail tail attacks certain strains, and looked at the genetic similarities and differences between tylosin producers and target strains.

After examining 12 strains of known soil bacteria using tellosin, the biologists found evidence that differences in lipopolysaccharides – molecules based on lipids and sugar – associated with the outer membranes could determine whether or not the strain was targeted by a specific tail.

“The bacteria we studied live in a challenging environment that lacks resources, so we’re interested in learning how they could use the tail to stay alive,” said Adam Arkin, co-lead author and chief scientist in the biological sciences. Area and Co-Technical Director of Ecosystems and Integrated Networks with Genes and Molecular Assemblies (ENIGMA) is a scientific focus area. Arkin noted that although scientists can easily induce bacteria to produce tylocins in the laboratory (and they can easily introduce genes into cultured strains for mass production, which would be useful if we wanted to turn drugs into drugs) there are still a lot of unanswered questions. She notes on how the tailed bacteria spread in their natural habitat, as well as how – and why – specific strains are targeted with lethal precision.

Arkin added, “Once we understand the targeting mechanisms, we can start using these tools ourselves.” Obviously, the potential of medicine is enormous, but it will also be fascinating for the kind of science we do, which studies how environmental microbes interact and the roles of these interactions in environmental processes. The task, such as carbon sequestration and nitrogen treatment. ”

Currently, it is very difficult to know what every microbe in society is doing, as scientists cannot easily add and subtract strains and monitor the outcome. With properly harnessed tail tools, these experiments can be easily performed.

Mutalik, Arkin, and their colleagues are also conducting follow-up studies aimed at uncovering Tailocins’ mechanisms of action. They plan to use the advanced imaging facilities at Berkeley Lab to take snapshots at the atomic level of the entire process, from the moment tailocin attaches to the target cell all the way to cell shrinkage. Basically, they will shoot frames for a microscopic tilted film.


This work is part of the ENIGMA Scientific Focus area, a multi-institutional consortium led by the Berkeley Lab focused on enhancing our understanding of microbial biology and the impact of microbial communities on their ecosystems. ENIGMA is supported by the Department of Energy’s Office of Science.

Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and its scientists were founded in 1931 on the belief that teams’ best scientific challenges face, and they have won 14 Nobel Prizes. Today, Berkeley Lab researchers develop environmental and sustainable energy solutions, create useful new materials, push the frontiers of computing, and probe the secrets of life, matter and the universe. Scientists from all over the world rely on the laboratory facilities for their Discovery Science. The Berkeley Laboratory is a national, multi-program laboratory, administered by the University of California for the Science Office of the US Department of Energy.

The US Department of Energy’s Office of Science is the largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States, and works to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit

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