D: What are you up to, Yaël?
Y: I’m about to go take some soup to my neighbor, Don. She’s been really sick this week.
D: Is this the neighbor who’s always sick?
Y: The same one.
D: Maybe she has sleeping bacteria that keep waking up.
Y: What do you mean? Bacteria go to sleep?
D: Not like us humans do, but bacteria called “persisters” can fall into something like a deep sleep where they shut down and aren’t affected by antibiotics. They can wake up spontaneously later on, and the infection they cause comes back. This sleeping and waking cycle creates chronic infections—for example, urinary tract infections caused by E. coli, lung infections caused by Pseudomonas aeruginosa, and tuberculosis caused by Mycobacterium tuberculosis. Scientists are still trying to understand it completely, but a team of researchers recently examined the process in the bacteria E. coli. They looked at a peptide in the bacteria called HokB, which is already known to play a role in persisters. The peptide forms pores in the bacteria cell’s membrane, which makes it lose energy and go to sleep. The pore formation only happens when two of the peptides are linked. Scientists found that the bacteria only wake up when the link between the peptides is broken. The more researchers understand about how the process works, the better they can treat chronic infections. One idea is to give patients both molecules that stimulate this peptide-breaking, awakening process as well as antibiotics, since it’s only when the sleeping bacteria wake up that antibiotics can kill them.
Y: I guess an alarm clock wouldn’t be enough for that kind of deep, bacterial sleep.