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Dr Tim R Blower

Associate Professor

MA (Cantab) MSci PhD PGCAP

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Associate Professor in the Department of BiosciencesCG246 (Chemistry) 
Member of the Biophysical Sciences Institute  


Toxin-antitoxin systems and bacteriophage-resistance

Whilst bacteria are often thought of as selfish cells working for their own benefit, we can observe that they exist as diverse interacting communities. This is reflected in the ubiquitous presence and implementation of "toxin-antitoxin" systems throughout known Bacterial and Archaeal species. Toxin-antitoxin systems are characterised as small genetic loci generally encoding two parts. The toxin, when free to act, will target the host cell and stall growth. In the presence of the antitoxin, this effect is negated and cells grow freely.

It might appear peculiar that bacterial cells carry toxin-antitoxin systems, until you consider the potential advantages. For instance, if there aren't enough nutrients to go around, one cell activates its internal toxins, allowing it to grow slower or die, so that the population of clonal bacteria around it can survive. Another example would be when a bacterial cell becomes infected by a bacteria-specific virus, called a bacteriophage. Unchecked, the bacteriophage would replicate, burst out, and infect neighbour cells. If the infected cell shuts down quickly, however, it can stop viral spread. The AbiE system (Figure 1), acts as a toxin-antitoxin system to protect bacteria from bacteriophages.

Figure 1. AbiE toxin-antitoxin and phage-resistance system. AbiEi antitoxin from Streptococcus agalactiae (green) aligned with antitoxin Rv2827c from Mycobacterium tuberculosis (purple).

Harnessing molecular tools from bacteriophage-host interactions

Toxin-antitoxin systems are diverse, with a wide range of roles and many targets, which include the ribosome, DNA replication (via topoisomerases) and the cell wall. This list matches the targets of common antibiotics. By understanding how these toxins inhibit bacterial cell growth, we may be able to co-opt this ability to control bacterial species. This is becoming increasingly important in the face of widespread antibiotic resistance.

Furthermore, as the natural predators of bacteria, it is essential to investigate bacteriophage biology and host-interactions, in particular, the many ways bacteriophages can adapt to avoid host bacteriophage-resistance mechanisms.

A range of molecular biology and biochemical techniques are employed in the lab, including protein biochemistry, genomics and structural analysis through X-ray crystallography.

Research interests

  • Molecular Microbiology
  • Antimicrobial Resistance
  • Bacteriophage biology
  • Structural Biology
  • Biochemistry
  • Toxin-antitoxin systems

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