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Last Updated: Saturday, 31 January, 2004, 01:59 GMT
Microbes 'are living antibiotic'
E. coli
The microbe may attack other bacteria - for example E.coli, pictured here.
Predatory bacteria could be harnessed to tackle infections in place of antibiotics, claim researchers.

German and UK experts believe the Bdellovibrio bacterium could be useful in an age of diminishing effectiveness for standard chemical antibiotics.

The bacterium swims at high speed, senses the presence of other bugs, invades, and destroys them.

Writing in the journal Science, the researchers say they are examining its genes to see how it launches attacks.

Genome mapped

Many common infections are gaining increasing resistance to a wide range of traditional antibiotics, and while new drugs are being developed, the search for alternatives is under way.

Bdellovibrio bacteriovorus has been known for some time, but its potential as an infection fighter has not so far been examined.

The team from the Max-Planck Institute for Developmental Biology and Nottingham University have now mapped the complete genome of the bug.

In the first instance, they hope that some of its chemical techniques for invading bacteria could be turned into drugs - but it is possible the whole bacterium could be sent into the body instead.

Sniffing out prey

The bug has a complex life cycle, at first searching out its "prey" by sensing the presence of chemicals it emits, and swimming at high speed towards them.

Once it has collided with a potential prey cell, it attaches itself to it, pulling itself close using long retractable fibres.

It can then produce chemicals which can cut a hole in the cell wall, pull itself in and start consuming the cell from the inside.

The cell's resources are used to help the bacterium grow and divide, before heading out to find other cells.

Bdellovibrio cannot actually infect mammalian cells, so it is potentially safe enough to use in humans, although much work remains to test this theory in animals.

The bug also does not tend to produce a powerful immune response in mammals.

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