Can Bacteria Talk to Each Other?

Posted on November 27, 2015 by Dr. Lynda

Can bacteria communicate? Are they capable of collaborating against us on the leftovers in our fridge or in those first few days of an illness? New science tells us it’s possible, on some levels!

Yesterday in the U.S. many Americans enjoyed their Thanksgiving feast, and left-overs will be moving past their prime in a few days, so when I discovered this amazing TED Talk, it made me think of the dressing that sat out on the kitchen counter too long. Were there microbes multiplying and communicating there about doing their dirty work?

Image: cartoon of how Bacteria communicate

The answer depends on your definition of “communication.” As you know from your own everyday experiences, communication isn’t always about verbal exchanges. In fact most communication – body language, facial expressions, gestures – is non-verbal: a rolled eye, the cold shoulder, hands on hips, or a furrowed brow can speak volumes.

What if bacteria communicate with some equivalent “language” that contributes to the group’s overall success? What if bacteria’s definition of success is taking over your left-over dressing and making you sick?

As Bonnie Bassler, a professor at Princeton University, explains, it turns out bacteria do in fact use an interesting form of communication… One we might do well to keep in mind!

Professor Bassler explains more in today’s EWC featured TED Talk:

Via: TED 1

Ms. Bassler studies bacteria and bacteria communication at the Princeton University Molecular Biology Department, and we could end up caring deeply about her research if someday we have a sick child or are ailing ourselves. Why should we care?  She’s paving the way for new, more potent medicine 2 (something that will be a dire need in the coming years as antibiotics lose effectiveness).

Here’s a little snippet of her story:

Image: Bonnie Bassler of the Princeton University Molecular Biology departmentIn 2002, training her microscope on a microbe that lives in the gut of fish, Bonnie Bassler isolated an elusive molecule called AI-2, and uncovered the mechanism behind mysterious behavior called quorum sensing — or bacterial communication. She showed that bacterial chatter is hardly exceptional or anomolous [sic] behavior, as was once thought — but that, in fact, most bacteria do it, and most do it all the time. (She calls the signaling molecules ‘bacterial Esperanto.’)

“The discovery shows how cell populations use chemical powwows to stage attacks, evade immune systems and forge slimy defenses called biofilms. For that, she’s won a MacArthur “genius” grant — and is giving new hope to frustrated pharmacos seeking new weapons against drug-resistant superbugs.

“Bassler teaches molecular biology at Princeton, where she continues her years-long study of v. harveyi, one such social microbe that is mainly responsible for glow-in-the-dark sushi. She also teaches aerobics at the YMCA.” 3

Do you want another reason to be excited about Bassler’s work? Take a look at Ms. Bassler’s work as discussed by none other than the great Neil deGrasse Tyson.

Via: PBS 4

For even more information, check out Professor Bassler’s research log via Princeton University’s Labs web page, or check out her Howard Hughes Medical Institute bio for links to more research and scientific findings.

Great insights here, and, even more, reason to take a look at our article on The Doctors’ Famous Thanksgiving Fritters. This is a great recipe for using up all the spoils of almost any feast. Take a look!

Meanwhile, stay open, curious and hopeful!

~ Dr. Lynda

Want to see more positive news, fun or insights?

Tune out the negative news cycle and scroll down to the bottom of this page to find 6 more articles I can recommend. Today the articles there are each especially interesting. Unusual things you might not dip into. But suspend your web-searching impulses and you won’t be sorry!

Dr. Lynda is a dentist, artist, global traveler, and philanthropist who looks for potential and shares it with the world.

Notes:

  1. Bassler, Bonnie. “How Bacteria “talk”” TED.com. TED, Feb. 2009. Web. 17 Nov. 2015. <https://www.ted.com/talks/bonnie_bassler_on_how_bacteria_communicate?language=en>.
  2. Bassler, Bonnie. “How Bacteria “talk”” TED.com. TED, Feb. 2009. Web. 17 Nov. 2015. <https://www.ted.com/talks/bonnie_bassler_on_how_bacteria_communicate?language=en>.
  3. Bassler, Bonnie. “How Bacteria “talk”” TED.com. TED, Feb. 2009. Web. 17 Nov. 2015. <https://www.ted.com/talks/bonnie_bassler_on_how_bacteria_communicate?language=en>.
  4. “Watch Now: NOVA ScienceNOW | Profile: Bonnie Bassler | PBS Video.”PBS Video. NOVA ScienceNOW, 1 Jan. 2007. Web. 17 Nov. 2015. <http://video.pbs.org/video/1522538416/>.