Stinky Bacteria

Hydrogen sulfide is toxic, flammable, and smelly. Think rotten eggs and you’ve identified this simple gas. It is commonly found in natural gas and has uses in the synthetic chemistry of sulfur compounds.

H2S is also produced by many kinds of bacteria, but until illuminated by a recent paper its function was generally a mystery. The new work reveals that inactivation of H2S production renders clinically nasty bacteria much more susceptible to most ordinary antibiotics.

At one level this result is confusing because the many antibiotics tested supposedly have a variety of mechanisms of killing susceptible bugs. A unifying idea, though, is that a common end point of the antimicrobial drugs, no matter what their primary target, is cellular activation of reactive oxygen species which damage proteins, nucleic acids, and lipids, thereby killing the organism. In this scheme H2S protects bacteria by elevating antioxidant enzymes.

The work is important on two levels. First, the solidification of a possible common pathway for antibiotic action is an important basic science result. Second, the awful specter of emergent antibiotic resistance in the human population may just have a potential reprieve if clever scientists can find ways to manipulate what the authors’ dub the “gaskeeper” effect of H2S.

Tom Tritton is President and CEO of CHF.

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Posted In: Technology

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