Einstein Science Reporting for Kids
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10-Sep-2004

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Bacteria are like Popeye the sailor man



Staphylococcus aureus (magnification x10,000).
[Image courtesy of Janice Carr/CDC]

Full size image available here

Popeye the sailor man and infection-causing bacteria have something in common -- they need to consume iron to perform their best. In cartoons, Popeye gets his iron from spinach. New research shows exactly where the bacteria that often cause pneumonia get their iron. Here's a hint, the iron doesn't come from spinach.

The scientists hope to use their new insights to improve methods for fighting off the dangerous infections sometimes caused by Staphylococcus aureus. These "staph" bacteria are the leading cause of the infections people get when they visit a hospital.

In the cartoons, if you want to control Popeye, you have to keep him away from his iron-rich spinach. Humans and other animals try to prevent infections using a similar strategy. We try to keep invading bacteria from grabbing iron inside our bodies. This iron blockade doesn't always work. When bacteria cause an infection, there's a good chance they got enough iron from the animal they are invading. And now for the specific details of the new research appearing in the 10 September 2004 issue of the journal Science: When "staph" bacteria begin to infect worms and mice, they prefer to take the iron they need out of the oxygen-carrying proteins in the animal's bodies.

Eric Skaar from the University of Chicago in Chicago, Illinois and his colleagues also discovered a previously unknown system that allowed the bacteria to move iron inside their own bodies. When this iron-snatching system was altered or mutated, the infections the bacteria caused were less severe.

We might be able to make drugs that fight infection by targeting this newly discovered iron-uptake system in "staph" bacteria.

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