SUNY ESF scientists create synthetic protein that disrupts bacteria growth

By: Dave Tobin


SYRACUSE, N.Y. — When things don’t go as planned in Chris Nomura’s science world, they sometimes turn out for the better.

Nomura, an assistant professor in the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry’s Department of Chemistry, and his team of researchers are using a synthetic protein molecule to disrupt the way bacteria become virulent, a finding that could have widespread implications for human health.

The process has the potential to work against an array of bacteria including those that threaten patients with illnesses such as cystic fibrosis, stubborn strains that affect hospital patients and strains that occur in desert environments and prove troublesome for U.S. troops serving in places like Afghanistan.

For years, Nomura’s team has been researching better ways of developing biodegradable plastics from sugars, starches and plant oils. When these materials are fed to bacteria, the bacteria produce a byproduct similar to petroleum-based plastic.

Trying to stimulate this bacterial process using a synthetic protein, they discovered that the synthetic protein could disrupt bacterial growth by blocking or shutting down certain essential genetic functions of the bacteria.

The unexpected results became a departure point for a whole new line of research.

“In some cases the result that you don’t expect is more interesting than the question you originally asked,” Nomura said, in his office at ESF.

Nomura’s group, including postdoctoral researcher Benjamin Lundgren, found that certain proteins can attach themselves to bacterial DNA in a way that essentially prevents the bacteria from expressing its genetic information to function. Call it a roadblock, a short circuit, a form of contraceptive – exposure to the protein disrupts the bacteria’s ability to respond to changes in its environment.

“This is fundamentally a new way to think about blocking bacteria from becoming virulent,” Nomura said.

SUNY ESF is seeking to patent the process. Nomura’s group has yet to publish its findings.

Nomura’s work on the synthetic protein has been funded through the National Science Foundation (NSF). While some research milestones were met, the NSF was “sort of lenient,” he said. “If you discover something interesting, they don’t want to stop you from doing good science.”

Nomura, 42, was born in East Los Angeles and grew up in Southern California. He earned his bachelor’s degree with honor in biology from University of California at Santa Cruz, where he was studying elephant seal immunology and physiology. Finding and tracking seal pups and their mothers would take months. Nomura said he’d be observing a pair and some bull elephant seal would come running through the colony and crush a pup he was studying. It happened a few times, thwarting his research and presenting him with a dilemma:

“I don’t have enough replicates for my study; I can’t publish this anymore; What am I supposed to do?” he recalled thinking to himself.

What he did was he left elephant seals for more controlled research in laboratories. He obtained his doctorate from Pennsylvania State University, and did postdoctoral work in Japan in the Polymer Chemistry Laboratory at The RIKEN Institute.

Since coming to ESF in 2006, Nomura has secured $3.95 million in grant funding from various organizations. The bacteria-inhibiting protein has the potential to attract much more funding.

Traditional antibiotics attack only one aspect of a bacteria’s development, and bacteria can mutate relatively easily. But with this synthetic protein process, a bacteria would have to mutate hundreds of ways to get around the protein’s inhibitory effects.

Nomura is hoping for further funding from the National Science Foundation and possibly the Department of Defense, which has expressed interest, he said.

In the meantime, he’ll continue leading his team to explore the things that go wrong as vigorously as the ones that go right.

“There are a lot of things left undiscovered,” he said, “because people are very focused on trying to get a certain result instead of trying to understand the entire picture.”

Contact Dave Tobin at 470-3277, or via Twitter: @dttobin

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