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News Items in Dailies
Microbe hunters (The Hindu, March 20, 2003)
The primary role of the Defence Research and Development Establishment (DRDE), Gwalior, Madhya Pradesh, is to provide research and development systems to the Indian armed forces as they increasingly contend with the new realities of biological and other weapons of mass destruction. DRDE Scientists have developed a diagnostic kit that uses the dot-ELISA method to definitely identify the `leptospira' within a couple of hours rather than days. Recently, they have developed a system that can provide a confirmed diagnosis of the `anthracis' toxin in a human within 2 hours. The DRDE has also released recently a quick and accurate test kit for typhoid that costs less than Rs. 10 per test, and provides a result in minutes.
Cheap vaccines from bacterial viruses (The Hindu, March 20, 2003)
Genetically altered bacterial viruses appear to be more effective than naked DNA in eliciting an immune response and could be a new strategy for a next generation of vaccines that are easy to produce and store, say researchers from Moredun Research Institute in Britain. "In theory, millions of doses can be grown within a few days using simple equipment, media and procedure," says John March, a lead researcher presenting findings at the American Society for Microbiology's Biodefense Research Meeting.
Bacteriophages are viruses that infect bacteria but not humans. In this, March and his colleagues used a bacteriophage as a vehicle for the genes from the hepatitis B virus in mice and compared its ability to elicit a protective immune response with a vaccine made of the naked DNA.
They found that the bacteriophage could induce an immune response and the number of bacteriophage they needed was less than one per cent of the number of pieces of naked DNA required to mount an effective immune response. Using bacteriophages to deliver vaccine components gives many advantages over vaccination with naked DNA, says March. The DNA is protected inside the protein shell of the virus making it longr lasting and easier to store. In addition, bacteriophages have a large cloning capacity, making large-scale production cheap, easy and extremely rapid.
Relationships between humans, microorganisms (The Hindu, April 03, 2003)
Researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis have completed sequencing the genome of Bacteroides thetaiotaomicron, one of the most prevalent bacteria that live in the human intestine. The results appeared in Science "Humans enjoy mutually beneficial relationships with billions of bacteria that live in our gut. Discovering how these microbes manipulate our biology to benefit themselves and us should provide new therapeutic strategies for preventing or treating various diseases," says principal investigator Jeffrey I. Gordon.

According to Gordon the human body is home to diverse communities of microorganisms. It is estimated that adults are composed of 10 times more microbial cells than human cells. The intestine harbours our largest collection of microbes. It appears that the gut contains at least 1,000 different species of bacteria, and that their collective genomes ('the microbiome') contains 100-fold more genes than the human genome. These bacteria provide certain metabolic capabilities that humans lack, including the ability to process nutrients that human genes cannot break down.

Gordon's team analyzed the bacteria as a representative of this microbial community. "This bacterium becomes prominent beginning at a key developmental transition that takes place when infants are weaned from their mother's milk and begin eating a diet rich in polysaccharides," Gordon says.

By decoding the bacterium's genome, he identified some of the strategies it employs to forge a beneficial alliance with its host. For example, over 100 of its 4,800 genes appear to be dedicated to retrieving dietary polysaccharides from the intestinal cavity. The team also discovered that the bacteria contain an elaborate and novel apparatus for sensing its environment so that the correct combination of enzymes that grab and degrade carbohydrates can be expressed when nutrients are available. Also, the organism has a rich repository of genes that allow it to manufacture carbohydrates on its own cell surface.

By changing the features of this carbohydrate mask, the organism may be able to camouflage itself from the host's immune system. The bacterium also appears to be well equipped to refashion its own genome over time. This capacity may be the key to understanding the evolutionary processes that sustain beneficial symbiotic relationships between number of bacteria and their hosts. The gut microbiome not only has the potential to help us more fully define the complete complement of genes associated with our bodies, but it also represents a fertile field to prospect for natural products that may become tomorrow's wonder drugs."

Magnetic bugs cut sewage sludge (Indian Environment online)
Magnetic bacteria could cut sewage sludge. They could shave up to five tones of waste off the several hundred tones produced every day by a plant serving 100,000 people, say Japanese researchers Bacteria used to break down some harmful pollutants in wastewater add to leftover sludge. Much of this ends up buried in landfills. But microbes will cling to powdered iron sprinkled into the brew, find Yasuzo Sakai, of Utsunomiya University, and his colleagues. Magnets can then drag them out, reducing the sludge volume and enabling a plant to re-use the bugs. A year-long test, in which 80 liters of raw sewage were passed through a rotating magnetic drum every day, produced no bacterial sludge, Sakai told this week's meeting of the American Chemical Society in New Orleans. "Magnetic separation is fast and reliable," he says. Further, the researchers have now teamed up with water-treatment companies and local government to build a pilot plant that will treat 30 tones of sewage per day.
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