Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Staphylococcus aureus biofilm of the surface of a catheter. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention  

While medicine has treated bacterial infections in one of two ways— either killing the tiny organisms or slowing down their growth— doctors may soon have yet another weapon in the fight against pathogenic bacteria.

In her lab at Mount Holyoke College, biochemistry professor Megan Núñez has discovered a way to reduce the “stickiness” of a lab-safe strain of the E. coli bacterium by impairing its “pili,” which are the hairlike appendages that enable the microorganism to attach itself to surfaces and other cells.

It is a breakthrough that can vastly improve the way we deal with bacterial biofilms, which are communities of bacteria that grow on surfaces like teeth, industrial workspaces, and food and can be hard to remove. In the case of bacteria that cause disease, Núñez’s finding may also affect the development of drugs that undermine the pathogenic bacteria’s way of making a foothold in the body.

“In the case of these bacteria, they have to grab on to the human cells around them in order for them to not get flushed out of the body,” Núñez said. “So if you inhibit their ability to adhere, then your immune system is able to get rid of them, and you don’t have to have antibiotics at all, or the antibiotics might work better.”

In addition to her research into bacterial predation, Núñez also investigates DNA damage and repair. She is currently conducting research with students into the transversion mutation involving the DNA lesion 8-oxoguanine, which has been linked to diseases like colon cancer.