Bacteria multiply through magnesium: deficiency stops their growth

Bacteria multiply through magnesium: deficiency stops their growth

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The role of magnesium in the defense against pathogens

The body has several different methods available to protect itself from pathogens. Not all of our defense mechanisms have been decrypted. A research team from Basel has now discovered a new mechanism in which magnesium plays a central role.

Frogers from the Biozentrum of the University of Basel have for the first time decoded a process that body cells use to protect themselves against bacterial pathogens such as Salmonella. The cells create a self-induced magnesium deficiency to stop the intruders from growing. The research results were recently presented in the renowned scientific journal "Science".

Robbers and gendarmes in the organism

When pathogenic bacteria attack our organism, our immune system is activated and corresponding immune cells are released. The bacteria react to this by nesting in the host's cells and thus hiding from the patrolling defense cells.

What does magnesium have to do with bacteria?

But the landlord himself has a strategy to protect himself from the uninvited guests, as the Basel research team recently showed. The availability of magnesium plays an important role. The mineral is a central element of many metabolic enzymes. Bacteria need magnesium to grow and reproduce. To do this, they use the magnesium available from the occupied cells.

Supply tap turned off

The team led by Olivier Cunrath and Professor Dirk Bumann was able to show how the landlord is fighting back against the occupiers. The cells simply turn off the supply tap to the bacteria by using a protein to move the magnesium that is present outside, creating a magnesium deficiency.

Bacteria under stress

The magnesium deficiency that is created puts the bacteria in a stressful state. They use all the energy to get magnesium, but remain largely unsuccessful. As a result, they stop growing and multiplying.

A protein determines success

The host cell can only produce the magnesium deficiency with the help of a transport protein called NRAMP1. The team investigated this connection in Salmonella, which is widely used as a bacterial pathogen. They nest in the phagocytes (macrophages) of the immune system. It was shown that the success of the defense strategy strongly depends on the functionality of the NRAMP1 transporter.

Old puzzle solved

"It has long been known that NRAMP1 is linked to resistance to infection," reports Professor Bumann. So far, however, no one knew how and why. It was also unclear until now that NRAMP1 is used to pump magnesium out of the cells. "This is a completely new, unexpected mechanism," explains the researcher enthusiastically.

The Achilles' heel of the bacteria

"Magnesium is the Achilles' heel for intracellular pathogens," added study author Cunrath. The less there is, the more they crave it. You get stressed and on alert - activate all magnesium intake systems and eventually stagnate when they multiply. "On the other hand, if the pump in the host cells is defective, the salmonella has enough magnesium to grow quickly," says Cunrath.

NRAMP1: A central protein in the immune system

As the research team reports, humans and animals that produce little NRAMP1 have an increased susceptibility to various intracellular pathogens such as Salmonella. If this protein is completely absent, such infections are fatal even with a low number of pathogens.

New approach against bacterial pathogens

The study offers a new approach to fighting bacterial infections. For example, according to the researchers, drugs could be developed that additionally disrupt the magnesium balance of the bacteria. In this way, the pathogens could be slowed down even more and give the organism an advantage. (vb)

Author and source information

This text corresponds to the specifications of the medical literature, medical guidelines and current studies and has been checked by medical doctors.

Graduate editor (FH) Volker Blasek


  • University of Basel: Magnesium deficiency stops the growth of pathogens (accessed: November 22, 2019),
  • Olivier Cunrath, Dirk Bumann: Host resistance factor SLC11A1 restricts Salmonella growth through magnesium deprivation, Science, 2019,

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