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Food microbiology

Bacteriocins: developing innate immunity for food

Key Points

  • The use of antimicrobial peptides is arguably the most widespread system of antimicrobial defence, being present in various organisms from insects to plants to humans. However, multicellular organisms do not have a monopoly on this early-warning system — bacteriocins, antimicrobial peptides thought to be produced by 30–99% of Bacteria and Archaea — perform the same function, allowing their microbial producers to target other microorganisms while remaining immune themselves.

  • The bacteriocins are a heterogeneous group of peptides and proteins and previously a classification scheme involving five separate classes was proposed. In this article, we suggest an alternative classification, which divides the bacteriocins into two distinct categories: the lanthionine-containing lantibiotics (class I) and the non-lanthionine-containing bacteriocins (class II), and which removes the large, heat-labile murein hydrolases (formerly known as class III bacteriocins) to a separate group called bacteriolysins.

  • Recent developments have greatly advanced our understanding of the molecular biology of bacteriocin action and resistance. Highlights include the finding that the class I bacteriocin nisin functions by binding to lipid II — as lipid II is also the target for antibiotics such as vancomycin, this has led to the suggestion that nisin could be used as a template to design novel drugs.

  • Many bacteriocins are produced by food-grade lactic acid bacteria (LAB) and, given that they are also usually heat stable and can inhibit the growth of many of the microorganisms that cause problems in minimally processed foods, they have a host of food microbiology applications. The bacteriocins nisin and pediocin PA1 are already widely used in food preservation. In addition to preventing spoilage, bacteriocins can also be used to improve the quality of foodstuffs, for example, in cheese production, to control the growth of starter cultures and enhance ripening.

Abstract

Bacteriocins are bacterially produced antimicrobial peptides with narrow or broad host ranges. Many bacteriocins are produced by food-grade lactic acid bacteria, a phenomenon which offers food scientists the possibility of directing or preventing the development of specific bacterial species in food. This can be particularly useful in preservation or food safety applications, but also has implications for the development of desirable flora in fermented food. In this sense, bacteriocins can be used to confer a rudimentary form of innate immunity to foodstuffs, helping processors extend their control over the food flora long after manufacture.

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Figure 1: Lanthionine synthesis and lantibiotic structure.
Figure 2: Mode of action of lactic acid bacteria bacteriocins.
Figure 3: Regulation by quorum sensing.
Figure 4: Selected applications of bacteriocins.

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Acknowledgements

The authors are supported by the Irish Government under the National Development Plan (2000–2006) and by Science Foundation Ireland.

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DATABASES

Entrez

Escherichia coli

Lactococcus lactis

Leuconostoc oenos

Listeria monocytogenes

Staphylococcus aureus

Streptococcus mutans

Streptococcus pneumoniae

FURTHER INFORMATION

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Glossary

BACTERIOCINS

Bacterially produced, small, heat-stable peptides that are active against other bacteria and to which the producer has a specific immunity mechanism. Bacteriocins can have a narrow or broad target spectrum.

LANTIBIOTIC

Lanthionine-containing bacteriocins. Lanthionines are formed when a dehydrated serine or threonine is covalently bridged (through the sulphur atom) with a cysteine.

BACTERIOLYSINS

Large, heat-labile, lytic proteins produced by bacteria.

LIPID II

Lipid II (Undecaprenyl-pyrophosphate–MurNAc(pentapeptide)–GlcNAc) has an essential role in peptidoglycan synthesis by translocating the peptidoglycan subunits across the cell membrane. Lipid II is also the target of vancomycin, the drug of last resort in the treatment of MRSA.

BACTERIOCINOGENIC

Bacteriocin-producing strains are said to be bacteriocinogenic.

GRAS

An acronym for substances that are 'generally recognized as safe'. This group includes several hundred substances that experts consider safe for use in food on the basis of either a history of safe use before 1958 or on published scientific evidence.

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Cotter, P., Hill, C. & Ross, R. Bacteriocins: developing innate immunity for food. Nat Rev Microbiol 3, 777–788 (2005). https://doi.org/10.1038/nrmicro1273

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