Interview with a vampire – exploring the predatory bacteria Bdellovibrio

With the air of Halloween still lingering, this Monday the audience at the Museum of Natural History found themselves captivated by a gruesome tale of vampiric creatures preying on their unsuspecting victims. In a fascinating seminar, Prof Liz Sockett (University of Nottingham) introduced us to an ancient “bloodsucker” whose violent delights have only started to come to light in the last 50 years: the predatory bacteria Bdellovibrio bacteriovorus.

Evolution has shaped these microbes to exhibit a rather unique way of getting food: instead of acquiring nutrients from the environment, they exploit other bacteria by penetrating their cell walls and replicating inside of them. Prof Sockett presented the results of her most recent efforts in dissecting this complicated predatory lifestyle.

She explained how Bdellovibrio is able to punch holes in their prey Escherichia coli and digest it without getting harmed in the process, and showed images of the “bite marks” it leaves in the prey’s cell wall. After the initial bite, Bdellovibrio enters the prey cell and extracts any cellular building blocks it needs to replicate itself, killing the prey in the process.

Since this predatory behavior is extremely complex – Prof Sockett described it as a veritable “concerto of many functions” -, it is very difficult for prey bacteria to evolve resistance against it. This has opened up exciting areas of research, where Bdellovibrio is explored as a therapeutic agent against bacterial infections. By killing pathogens, predatory bacteria can support the immune system in clearing infections, potentially providing a much-needed alternative to conventional antibiotics.

This glimpse into the world of microbial vampires has certainly left an impression. And it remains to be seen whether this seminar will motivate the members of today’s audience to dress up as Bdellovibrio for their next Halloween party. Finally, a truly frightening costume idea!

Follow Eliza on @Prokaryota