Bacterial nanosized speargun works like a power drill

In order to get rid of unpleasant competitors, some bacteria use a sophisticated weapon -- a nanosized speargun. Researchers at the University of Basel's Biozentrum have now gained new insights into the construction, mode of action and recycling of this weapon. As they report in the journal Nature Microbiology, the speargun drills a hole into the neighboring cells in only a few thousandths of a second and injects a cocktail of toxins.

Millions of tiny microbes on leaves, stones or our skin jostle for space. And almost everywhere they have to compete for resources and nutrients. In the course of evolution, some bacteria have therefore developed a weapon to inject a toxic cocktail into competitors and rivals in their neighborhood, thus eliminating them. Among experts, this weapon resembling a speargun is also known as the type VI secretion system (T6SS).

Two years ago, Prof. Marek Basler was able to elucidate the atomic structure of the speargun in the "post-firing" state. In the current study, which was carried out in cooperation with various research groups and technology platforms at the Biozentrum, his team has now solved the structure of the "ready to fire" speargun. Based on these findings, the researchers have been able to model how this T6SS speargun works.

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