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Scientists reveal quirky feature of Lyme disease bacteria
Date:3/21/2013

Scientists have confirmed that the pathogen that causes Lyme Diseaseunlike any other known organismcan exist without iron, a metal that all other life needs to make proteins and enzymes. Instead of iron, the bacteria substitute manganese to make an essential enzyme, thus eluding immune system defenses that protect the body by starving pathogens of iron.

To cause disease, Borrelia burgdorferi requires unusually high levels of manganese, scientists at Johns Hopkins University (JHU), Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), and the University of Texas reported. Their study, published March 22, 2013, in the Journal of Biological Chemistry, may explain some mysteries about why Lyme Disease is slow-growing and hard to detect and treat. The findings also open the door to search for new therapies to thwart the bacterium by targeting manganese.

"When we become infected with pathogens, from tuberculosis to yeast infections, the body has natural immunological responses," said Valeria Culotta, a molecular biologist at the JHU Bloomberg School of Public Health. The liver produces hepcidin, a hormone that inhibits iron from being absorbed in the gut and also prevents it from getting into the bloodstream. "We become anemic, which is one reason we feel terrible, but it effectively starves pathogens of iron they need to grow and survive," she said.

Borrelia, with no need for iron,has evolved to evade that defense mechanism. In 2000, groundbreaking research on Borrelia's genome by James Posey and Frank Gherardini at the University of Georgia showed that the bacterium has no genes that code to make iron-containing proteins and typically do not accumulate any detectable iron.

Culotta's lab at JHU investigates what she called "metal-trafficking" in organismsthe biochemical mechanisms that cells and pathogens such as Borrelia use to acquire and manipulate metal ions for their biological purposes.

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