Bacteria Causing Urinary Tract Infections Steals Copper to Weaken Defenses
By on July 9th, 2012

Researchers at the Washington University School of Medicine have discovered that bacteria primarily responsible for urinary tract infections have a way of stealing copper, which is well known for its healing abilities.

Edwin Smith Papyrus

The ancient Egyptians were known to use copper in wound treatment as early as 1600 B.C. Pictured above, the Edwin Smith Papyrus is the earliest known surgical document. Compared to similar manuscripts, this document is much more scientific and less magical. It actually outlines several treatments using copper from sterilizing a chest wound to sterilizing drinking water. It appears that certain bacteria have formed defenses against the anti-microbial properties of copper.

According to a press release by Washington University Medical School, the U.S. alone spends $1.6 billion annually treating urinary tract infections. Pictured below, you see the primary culprit in most urinary tract infections – E. Choli. This nasty little bacteria can cause some serious harm if left unchecked. Women seem to be the most susceptible to urinary tract infections. Some of these infections can be particularly stubborn against treatment with antibiotics. Jeff Henderson, MD, PhD, assistant professor of medicine and of molecular microbiology at Washington University School of Medicine wants to get to the bottom of what is different about these persistent offenders.

E. Choli

E. Choli (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

E. Choli have long been noted to produce an iron binding agent called yersiniabactin. This molecule “steals” iron from the host cell in order to help the bacteria grow and reproduce. Henderson noted that the most infectious bacteria were producing yersiniabactin so he began to question whether the bacteria may be using it for purposes other than iron collecting. To test his theory, he put yersiniabactin in urine samples from healthy patients. He found that this molecule was not only binding to iron, but it was also picking up copper as well. Next they did the same analysis of patients with known infections. “We found copper bound to yersiniabactin in nearly every patient whose bacteria made the molecule,” Henderson said, “yersiniabactin was often bound to copper more than it was to iron.” These bacteria have figured out a defense against their own enemy. By stealing copper from host cells it eliminates something that can damage it.

Henderson plans to do more studies of other disease-causing bacteria that make yersiniabactin to see if they work similarly to E. Choli. It wasn’t long ago that I watched my ailing grandmother struggle with a constant infection that the doctors just couldn’t get under control. It did considerable damage to her kidneys and hurt in other ways as well.  Hopefully, by making ways to detect this molecule they can come up with a way to diagnose potentially dangerous infections sooner.

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Author: Darrin Jenkins Google Profile for Darrin Jenkins
Darrin is an IT manager for a large electrical contractor in Louisville KY. He is married and has 3 kids. He loves helping people with their technology needs. He runs a blog called Say Geek!

Darrin Jenkins has written and can be contacted at

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