In size, the subject of Texas A&M researchers is microscopic. In scope, the results could be enormous.
"It seems like it's just a moment, but it's been a couple of years in a long progression of figuring this thing out," according to Professor Ry Young, who specializes in biochemistry and biophysics. He and a host of researchers and students collaborated on this project.
"My own laboratory's interest is in how bacterial viruses destroy bacteria. Just like you have human viruses that affect humans, bacteria have diseases. They're destroyed by viruses."
What the group found was what could be an original way these bacteria-killing viruses spread. Bacteria have a rigid outer wall, almost like wood paneling. The attacking viruses land on that outer wall and inject their DNA into the bacteria. In around half an hour, 200 more viruses have been created inside.
One way they escape is the A&M breakthrough. The protein, named Lyz, is deposited in bacteria membrane by some viruses. It appears to be an original, maybe prehistoric method by which viruses fought bacteria, but obviously is still being used.
When the newly-created viruses inside the bacteria are ready to escape, Lyz detaches from the membrane, changes into a Pac-man like form, and eats at that rigid wall. The results are ruptures that destroy the bacteria and release the 200 viruses, which will go on and fight more bacteria.
The discovery's impact is now reaching the scientific community through Science magazine, a huge achievement for those involved.
"If you have a discovery that is against previous theories, the review process is rigorous," said Young.
Scientists will continue to study the findings to further understand how bacterial viruses work, but long-term, their discovery could lead to better treatment of disease, especially as antibiotics are less and less effective. Indeed, this small finding could pay healthy dividends.