Anna Maria Pirttilä and Janne Koskimäki form a persistent pair of researchers. Their next goal is to develop research-based drugs.
The hardest part is the silence. As a researcher, when you realise you’re about to discover something amazing, you don’t shout for joy. Instead you glue your mouth shut and get to work. Basic research is slow and competitive and requires hundreds of experiments. However, years and years of hard work can lead to groundbreaking results.
The groundbreaking discovery in numbers:
Anna Maria Pirttilä and Janne Koskimäki dug deep into pine buds for almost ten years. Pirttilä is a docent of plant microbiology, Koskimäki a doctoral student. A decade of work sounds like an enormous risk. According to the pair, it really was.
“My biggest fear was that I have wasted a decade of my life. I remained sceptical until the end. I didn’t dare to celebrate until I got an e-mail saying the article was accepted for publication”, Janne Koskimäki says.
Luckily the detail-oriented sceptic had an opposing force. Anna Maria Pirttilä, who led the research, is a visionary whose faith did not waver.
”I was certain from the beginning that we were onto something big.”
”I was certain from the beginning that we were onto something big. People have been researching these compounds for almost a century. I knew that if we succeeded, our research would reveal something completely new about the way bacteria work”, Pirttilä says with a determined look in her eyes.
The bacteria itself are sneakier than their reputation implies
Plant cells and human cells defend themselves from bacteria in a very similar way. The human body produces oxygen radicals to the infected area. Oxygen radicals are a tough defence mechanism since they damage good cells as well as bad ones. Oxygen radicals cause destruction that is strongly linked with the emergence of Alzheimer’s disease and retinal degeneration.
Surprisingly, bacteria have very efficient defence mechanisms against even the most toxic oxygen radicals.
This is where things get exciting. The researchers found out in their experiments that surprisingly, bacteria have very efficient defence mechanisms against even the most toxic oxygen radicals. Bacteria produce polyhydroxybutyrate, long fatty acid compounds. When an infection occurs, the bacteria chop the fatty acid chains into small pieces and stifle the oxygen radicals. Once the obstacle has been overcome, the bacteria penetrate even deeper into our cells.
“People didn’t know bacteria had such an ability. Now that we have this new information we can create drugs that can fight infections more efficiently than before”, Pirttilä recounts.
The article, published in Nature Chemical Biology, is not the researchers’ final milestone. Pirttilä and Koskimäki are already in the midst of developing applications based on their recent findings. The main goal is to create a new drug for retinal degeneration. This work is funded by Tekes.
The main goal is to create a new drug for retinal degeneration.
But why did all of this happen in Oulu? According to the pair of researchers the university campus is very coherent and researchers from different disciplines can help each other out if needed. This is why it’s easy to conduct interdisciplinary research. But there’s another reason, and an even more important one at that: pine forests.
“I need to go to the forest every day. I sit under the trees and just let my thoughts flow, regardless of the weather”, Anna Maria Pirttilä confesses and flashes a smile so wide her eyes narrow.
Do you want to hear more? Ask the researchers:
Docent Anna Maria Pirttilä, am.pirttila(at)oulu.fi, tel. +358 294 481 545
Doctoral student Janne Koskimäki, janne.koskimaki(at)oulu.fi tel. +358 294 481 496
You can find the research article in this issue of Nature Chemical Biology:
Koskimäki et al., Methyl-esterified 3-hydroxybutyrate oligomers protect bacteria from hydroxyl radicals. (14.3.2016 18:00)
Last updated: 1.7.2016