The study was published online on Jan. 9, 2013 in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface. The work was supported by the James S. McDonnell Foundation and the Burroughs Wellcome Fund.
Common Gram-positive bacteria that infect humans include Streptococcus, which causes strep throat; Staphylococcus, which causes impetigo; and Clostridium, which causes botulism and tetanus. Gram-negative bacteria include Escherichia, which causes urinary tract infections; Vibrio, which causes cholera; and Neisseria, which causes gonorrhea.
Gram-positive bacteria differ from Gram-negative bacteria in the structure of their cell walls. The cell wall constitutes the outer layer of Gram-positive bacteria, whereas the cell wall lies between the inner and outer membrane of Gram-negative bacteria and is therefore protected from direct exposure to the environment.
Georgia Tech biology graduate student Gabriel Mitchell, Georgia Tech physics professor Kurt Wiesenfeld and Weitz developed a biophysical theory of the response of a Gram-positive bacterium to the formation of a hole in its cell wall. The model detailed the effect of pressure, bending and stretching forces on the changing configuration of the cell membrane due to a hole. The force associated with bending and stretching pulls the membrane inward, while the pressure from the inside of the cell pushes the membrane outward through the hole.
"We found that bending forces act to keep the membrane together and push it back inside, but a sufficiently large hole enables the bending forces to be overpowered by the internal pressure forces and the membrane begins to escape out and the cell contents follow," said Weitz.
The balance between the bending and pressure forces led to the model prediction that holes 15 to 24 nanometers in diameter or larger would cause a bacteria cell to
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Georgia Institute of Technology