Better Together - Hamburg-led tuberculosis study demonstrates the power of collaboration


Better Together

Hamburg-led tuberculosis study demonstrates the power of collaboration

Hamburg, 19 February 2015 – A paper published today in the journal PLoS Pathogens by scientists at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) in Hamburg, Germany, and collaborators demonstrates the power of bringing together specialists in different areas to tackle complex problems. By joining forces, the multidisciplinary team uncovered a surprise about the bacterium that causes tuberculosis.

“Only by approaching multifaceted problems from all angles, and pooling all our expertise can we get to the bottom of it all."

“Only by approaching multifaceted problems from all angles, and pooling all our expertise can we get to the bottom of it all,” says Matthias Wilmanns, Head of EMBL Hamburg. “This is really the way future research will, and should, be done.”

The study is a prime example of the kind of work that the Centre for Structural Systems Biology (CSSB), currently being built on the DESY campus in Hamburg, Bahrenfeld, intends to nurture. With Wilmanns as scientific Director, and made possible by 52 million Euro in funding from BMBF, the city of Hamburg and the states of Lower Saxony and Schleswig-Holstein, the centre aims to bring structural, systems and infection biologists together to investigate various infectious diseases such as tuberculosis.

Tuberculosis knows no boundaries, kills millions of people per year worldwide and is developing resistance to current drug therapies at an alarming rate. Therefore, there is an urgent need to better understand the molecular processes associated with it, to support the development of new drugs, vaccines and diagnostic tests.

Mycobacterium tuberculosis is encased in a thick waxy layer made up of very long lipid chains, which protects it from toxic substances, preventing invaders and drugs from entering and causing it harm. Understanding how this protective layer works and how it could potentially be broken down could pave the way for new drug therapies. In this study, Wilmanns and collaborators investigated an enzyme called AccD1-AccA1, which was thought to be involved in assembling lipids like the ones in Mycobacterium tuberculosis’ cell wall.

Mycobacterium tuberculosis bacteria © National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID)

“To our surprise, we discovered that this enzyme is involved in a completely different process: it degrades leucine, one of the building blocks for making proteins” says Matthias Wilmanns, Head of EMBL Hamburg, who led the study. The group went a step further and determined the structure of this complex using electron microscopy, together with colleagues from EMBL Heidelberg. "With this study, we have shown how combining different approaches allows us to understand processes in organisms like the tuberculosis bacterium in their entirety," says Wilmanns.

Interdisciplinary studies such as this – and the enlightening results they can produce – will bring leading experts from around the world to convene in Hamburg this April for the CSSB’s first International Symposium entitled Systems in Infection Biology.

The current study was funded by EMBL and by the European Commission grant SysteMTb.

Source Article:

Ehebauer et al. Characterization of the Mycobacterial Acyl-CoA Carboxylase Holo Complexes reveals their Functional Expansion into Amino Acid Catabolism. Published in PLoS Pathogens on 10 February 2015. DOI:10.1371/journal.ppat.1004623

About EMBL

EMBL is Europe's flagship laboratory for the life sciences, with more than 80 independent groups covering the spectrum of molecular biology. EMBL is international, innovative and interdisciplinary - its 1800 employees, from many nations, operate across five sites: the main laboratory in Heidelberg, and outstations in Grenoble; Hamburg; Hinxton, near Cambridge (the European Bioinformatics Institute), and Monterotondo, near Rome. Founded in 1974, EMBL is an inter-governmental organisation funded by public research monies from its member states. The cornerstones of EMBL's mission are: to perform basic research in molecular biology; to train scientists, students and visitors at all levels; to offer vital services to scientists in the member states; to develop new instruments and methods in the life sciences and actively engage in technology transfer activities, and to integrate European life science research. Around 200 students are enrolled in EMBL's International PhD programme. Additionally, the Laboratory offers a platform for dialogue with the general public through various science communication activities such as lecture series, visitor programmes and the dissemination of scientific achievements.

About CSSB

The CSSB devotes itself to infection biology and medicine by utilizing structural and molecular biology methods and imaging techniques in conjunction with systems biology approaches. Our purpose is to unravel the underlying mechanisms of important pathogenic processes in order to discover more effective treatment options against bacterial and viral pathogens. CSSB is a joint initiative of nine research partners from northern Germany, including three universities and six research institutes. CSSB is a consortium without its own legal personality. All partners act exclusively in their own name and on their own account.