The three-dimensional structure of the VtrA and VtrC proteins. Image: Li, Rivera-Cancel et al. (CC BY 4.0)

How do bacteria know when to attack?

Certain bacteria that cause food poisoning rely on two proteins to sense bile salts the small intestine of their host.

When we eat a meal, bile salts in the intestine help the body to absorb molecules of fat. Certain bacteria that cause food poisoning in humans, such as Vibrio parahaemolyticus, can also detect bile salts and use them to sense that they have reached the intestine of a suitable host. The bacteria then produce toxins that inflame the intestine; this can result in days of diarrhea. However, it was not clear how the bacteria detect the bile salt signal and how this triggers them to produce the toxins.

Peng Li, Giomar Rivera-Cancel and colleagues now discover that not one, but two, genes are required for this process. The genes encode two proteins, called VtrA and VtrC, that interact to form protein ‘complex’ on the surface of the membrane that surrounds the bacterial cell. The two proteins create a barrel-like structure that can bind to bile salts and trigger the cell to produce the toxins.

Future experiments will aim to understand how the binding of bile salts to this protein complex causes an increase toxin production. A future challenge is to find out how other disease-causing bacteria sense environmental cues to produce toxins. With this knowledge, researchers might be able to design new drugs that could prevent the production of toxins to relieve symptoms of food poisoning and other illnesses.

To find out more

Read the eLife research paper on which this story is based: “Bile salt receptor complex activates a pathogenic type III secretion system” (July 5, 2016).
eLife is an open-access journal for outstanding research in the life sciences and biomedicine.
This text was reused under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.