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A new study led by the University of Oxford has shed light on why certain species of bacteria carry astonishing arsenals of weapons. The new findings, published in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution, could help us to engineer microbes that can destroy deadly pathogens, reducing our reliance on antibiotics.

Group of yellow and red bacteria fighting © Elisa Granato

Many species of bacteria possess multiple weapons to attack competitors. These include both short-range weapons that require direct contact with neighbouring cells, and long-range weapons, such as toxins that are released into the environment. Up to now, why bacteria have evolved to carry such a wide array of weapons has been a mystery.

Study co-author Professor Kevin Foster (Departments of Biology and Biochemistry, University of Oxford), said: ‘Unlike animals, which tend to carry a single weapon type such as horns, antlers, or tusks, bacterial species commonly carry multiple weapons. But it was unclear what the evolutionary basis for this was – why not just invest in a single type? One theory was that bacteria carry multiple weapons because they serve different functions during competition.’

The researchers tested this using the opportunistic pathogen Pseudomonas aeruginosa, a priority one pathogen by the World Health Organization, due to the rapid emergence of multidrug-resistant strains. P. aeruginosa possesses diverse weapons, including the ability to produce various toxic molecules (a long-range weapon), and toxin-loaded filaments anchored to its outer membrane (a short-range weapon).


Read the full story on the University of Oxford website.