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Home > iSGTW 6 August 2008 > iSGTW Feature - Anthrax and the grid

Feature - Anthrax and the grid


Researchers used Taverna to model molecules such as the anthrax bacillum.

Image courtesy of EPSRC

Bacillus anthracis, the bug that causes anthrax, is a peculiar creature.

Even though it resembles a soil-growing bacterium, it just hibernates when in the ground, in some cases lying dormant for hundreds of years until ingested by a suitable animal host. Then it springs to life, often causing rapid, even fatal, illness.

For years, scientists have wondered how and why this occurs.

Now, using Taverna workflow technology developed under myGrid—an e-Science project funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC)—researchers Anil Wipat, Colin Harwood and colleagues at the North East Regional e-Science Center in Newcastle, UK, think that they have puzzled out the answer, by sequencing its genome and thus characterizing the proteins it secretes

Proteins equip a bacterium to survive in its environment and reveal much about its lifestyle.  A soil-living bacterium, for example, secretes proteins that enable it to take up nutrients from the soil.  A disease-causing bacterium may secrete proteins that subvert the host’s immune system, enabling the bacterium to infect cells or survive in the bloodstream.

Photomicrograph of Bacillus anthracis, the organism which causes anthrax.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia  

Bacterium’s deadly secrets probed

By looking at a bacterium’s genomic code for proteins, researchers can deduce the proteins it produces.

But because bacteria can secrete as many as 4000 or more proteins, it’s been a time-consuming and laborious, manual process. By using the grid, however, the  Newcastle researchers were able to develop an automatic method which makes the identification, analysis and comparison faster and more efficient.

The proteins from Bacillus anthracis help to explain  its inability to grow in soil. “When we looked at the secreted proteins, we found that they’re not adapted to utilize molecules in the soil,” said Harwood. “However, they do enable Bacillus anthracis to grow in an animal host: some break down animal protein such as muscle fibers, others are the toxins which eventually kill the host, and others belong to the group of proteins of unknown function. We don’t know what these latter proteins do but we think they help the organism to evade the immune response.”

The team is setting up a website to guide users through the process for  any bacterium whose genome is known.  By identifying the secreted proteins it will be possible to determine some of the previously unsuspected properties, such as whether it is likely to be pathogenic. The method is also showing promise of commercial application, as many enzymes are sold commercially for things such as biofuel production.

Dan Drollette, iSGTW

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