Small sacrifice

by Vivienne Baillie Gerritsen

Martyrdom is not particular to humans. It is inherent to microbes too. A cell's answer to something which has gone dramatically wrong can be to self-destruct. It is a common approach to irretrievable damage, which cells frequently use. However, when suicide is chosen to save harm spreading further, the act is akin to self-sacrifice. Take viral infection for instance. When a virus finds its way into our body, our immune system calls up different means to fight it off. As a result, either essential components of the virus are successfully attacked and muted, or infected cells are simply wiped out. Such defence strategies are used across all kingdoms. In fact, living beings have devised astonishingly creative and cunning ways of dealing with infection - the most drastic of which is undoubtedly a form of suicide. The bacterium Escherichia coli recently revealed an immune strategy it uses, along with other microbes, which leads to its demise to save infection spreading throughout the colony. The strategy termed CBASS, for cyclic oligonucleotide-based antiphage signaling system, interrupts viral replication while also killing the infected host for good measure. One enzyme is at the very heart of this system, and its name is cyclic GMP-AMP synthase.

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