Jekyll and Hyde Bacteria Can Help or Hurt at the Flip of a DNA Switch

By Chelsea Whyte on July 6, 2012 11:20 PM EDT

worms with gut bacteria
Jekyll and Hyde bacteria live and thrive in the guts of worms. (Photo: Alex Martin)

A two-faced bacteria, which quietly lives in the guts of worms and contributes to their survival, can go rogue at any time and transform into a deadly poison.

Todd Ciche and other researchers from Michigan State University found that the flip of just one gene in the gut microbiome can make it go from tame to toxic in the blink of an eye. The switch happens randomly, with no measurable trigger.

These bacteria, bioluminescent pathogens, are opportunists lying in wait for the right time to turn lethal. They live in the intestines of nematode worms and grow slowly with them.

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Some nematode worms are parasitic themselves, making up the 'worms' of disease that farm animals and even humans can acquire. Some nematodes even eat their way out of their mother, hatching inside her body instead of waiting to be laid in an egg. The bacteria they ingest while eating their way out also feed on the worm's parasitic host.

As the bacteria multiply, they produce nutrients needed for reproduction and signal the worm to spawn babies.

"The nematode depends on the bacteria to reproduce in addition to killing the insects," Ciche told New Scientist

And then they go in for the kill, flipping a DNA switching and growing rapidly, producing deadly toxins as they get larger.

"It's like fleas teaming up with the plague," Ciche said.

Though he and his team are still not sure what causes the switch, he said studying this phenomenon could lead to medical breakthrough.  

"Animal guts are similar to ours, in that they are both teeming with microbes," said Ciche, according to Phys.org. "These bacteria and other microorganisms are different inside their hosts than isolated in a lab, and we're only beginning to learn how these alliances with microbes are established, how they function and how they evolve."

"If we can figure out why the DNA turns on and off to cause the switch between Jekyll and Hyde, we can better understand how bacteria enter stages of dormancy and antibiotic tolerance - processes critical to treating chronic infections," Ciche said.

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