Melbourne researchers have used the Australian Synchrotron to obtain a detailed picture of how bacterial protein toxins insert into cell membranes.

Professor Michael Parker is Deputy Director of St Vincent’s Institute of Medical Research and a world leader in the field of protein-cell membrane interactions and a long-time synchrotron user.

In an article in The Age newspaper (6 March 2015), Michael talks about his interest in the hole-punching toxins released by bacteria such as those that cause illnesses like pneumonia, sore throats and gastro. These toxins recognise cholesterol in cell membranes and assemble on the membrane in donut shape before “unfurling a physical punch to blast a hole across the cell membrane, [which can] often increase the severity of a bacterial infection”. The toxin work is just one example of the results Michael and his colleagues are obtaining through the Australian Synchrotron.

Michael says that protein structures allow us to ‘see’ biological processes – and to imagine useful new processes, for example designing drugs to stop the “donuts of death” forming, or developing biosensors to “measure the flow of chemicals inside and outside cells”.