Researchers want to harness bacteria-produced tailocins for science

Researchers led by a team from Berkeley Lab want to harness bacteria-produced nanomachines to help fight bad cells inside the human body. The nanomachines are called tailocins and are described as strong protein nanomachines made by bacteria. The researchers say they look like phages but lack a capsid, which is the head of the phage that contains the viral DNA and replication machinery.

Researcher Vivek Mutalik from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory studies tailocins and phages and says they're like spring-powered needles that sit on a target cell and appear to poke all the way through the cell membrane creating a hole in the cytoplasm leading to the cell losing ions and contents, and eventually, the cell collapses. A range of bacteria can produce tailocins under stress conditions.

Tailocins are only lethal to specific bacteria strains, leading to them earning a nickname of "bacterial homing missiles." Tailocins appear to be a tool used by bacteria to compete with rivals. They are similar enough to phages that scientists believe tailocins evolved from DNA originally inserted into bacterial genomes during viral infections.

Interestingly, bacteria are killed if they produce tailocins just as they would be if infected by a phage virus. The bacteria's death happens because the pointed nanomachines erupt out of the membrane to exit the producing cell just as replicated viral particles would. Once released, the tailocins target certain strains sparing other cells. Currently, scientists don't understand how the phenomenon happens in nature.

Researchers also don't understand how the stabbing needle plunger of the tailocins functions. There are many potential uses for tailocins, so research in the area is ongoing. Scientists think that someday tailocins might be useful as an alternative to traditional antibiotics. Research is also being conducted into harnessing tailocins to improve the study of microbiomes.