Vanderbilt University Scientists Discover How Acinetobacter Baumannii Survives Staying Dehydrated for Years

Acinetobacter baumannii is a bacterium that is known to commonly cause infections in the hospital environment, especially in in-patients whose immune systems may be weak. The number of recorded cases of people infected by this bacterium increased during the Covid-19 pandemic, because of the reduction in infection control practices at the time.

Acinetobacter Baumannii Desiccation

Acinetobacter Baumannii Desiccation. Credit: Cell Host & Microbe

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From previous studies on this organism, it is known that A. baumannii can survive without water for a very long time, and this feature explains the ability of this pathogen to survive on hospital surfaces which are most often dry; it also explains how it is the common cause of infections to people in the hospital setting.

Until recently, scientists have been in the dark as regards the working mechanism behind this ability of the pathogen. This was until the team of researchers at Vanderbilt University discovered the key factor behind the mechanism of its ability to survive dehydration for a long time. The team found that the pathogen can make hydrophilin proteins that protect it from ‘water deprivation’.

The discovery process

The team, led by Erin Green, a postdoctoral fellow, first observed the effect of dryness on the functioning and disease-causing ability of the pathogen. They found out that it could survive drying up for up to seven months, and that it became even more pathogenic, causing more serious infection in mice when it was later rehydrated.

They also found that the organism might have evolved, developing a way to survive without water for even longer periods. They were able to know this by comparing recently isolated strains of the bacterium to older strains that have been in the laboratory for a while.

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After carrying out a series of experiments, they discovered two proteins in the bacterium that made them able to survive dehydration. They called the proteins DtpA and DtpB. They noticed that these proteins possess an unusual sequence of repeating units of amino acids, making them atypical proteins. Further experiments showed that the proteins are similar in characteristics to proteins (intrinsically disordered proteins) found in other organisms like yeast, nematodes, and plant seeds, that are known to be able to survive water deprivation.

The mini-chain reaction of this discovery

The scientists believe that this discovery could be applied to resolve the existing challenge of making probiotics into pills. Scientists have been having difficulty making probiotics into pills to serve therapeutic purposes because the live bacteria do not get to survive dryness for the period of getting the pills through the stomach and into the gut. A good number of the bacteria die off while still within the pill before getting into the gut.

However, with this discovery of these hydrophilin proteins, the scientists believe that putting these newly-discovered proteins into the probiotics before covering them up within the pills would help them survive drying up before they are been released into the gut.

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Clinical significance

The findings from this study have made two huge impacts in the world of medicine. Firstly, it has revealed a way to combat the hospital infiltrator causing infections to the vulnerable masses of the hospital inhabitants. Secondly, it has uncovered a way for more efficient production of probiotic pills.


Thanks to Erin and his team, these hospital invaders do not stand the chance to cause infections anymore, and in a short time, probiotic pills would be available to serve the therapeutic purpose which they are needed for.

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Bacterial hydrophilins promote pathogen desiccation tolerance



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