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Discovering Bacteria's Amazing Communication System

Bonnie Bassler discovered that bacteria "talk" to each other, using a chemical language that lets them coordinate defense and mount attacks. The find has stunning implications for medicine, industry -- and our understanding of ourselves.



"Bacteria" is misspelled in the post title. ;)

Good talk, though she seemed a little more "cute" than necessary. One of my colleagues has done similar work in which her group has discovered that two or more bacterial species cooperate on biosynthesis - that is, one species performs early steps in the biosynthesis and another performs later steps (or so is my recollection).

One thing she put in that scientists routinely put in their talks is her acknowledgement stuff at the end. Is is just that academics in nonscientific fields don't have grad students and postdocs doing so much of the work, or is it that they just don't properly acknowledge them?

Interesting stuff. I'm wondering if the bacteria intelligence will eventually catch up with this new type of antibiotic. Will their own "language" begin co-opting the language of the signal interrupters. On a possibly more ridiculous side, will bacteria use their "ur" language to recruit other bacteria to do their bidding?

The part where Bassler discusses encouragement of helpful bacteria reminds me of why I make my own yogurt.

Tim, her talk may seem "cute," but if she routinely teaches an introductory course - if there is such a thing for molecular bio - then that kind of presentation can come in handy. I imagine keeping 1-300 students engaged/interested can be quite the challenge.

As for acknowledgments, good question. I know that some of the grunt work I did as a grad TA was not cited in one of my mentor's reviews. She was supportive of me in every other way. So I side with most academics don't feel the need or courtesy to acknowledge assistants. It may be that in science it's more ingrained int eh protocol for peer review studies. Since my field is music, I'm not certain there. I do have a student who will be going to grad school in a field related to this, and he says his way will be paid because the schools want control of his research. So possibly the acknowledgment is the only other way to pay the assistants outside of their measly TA pay.

I'm wondering if the bacteria intelligence will eventually catch up with this new type of antibiotic. Will their own "language" begin co-opting the language of the signal interrupters.

I wonder if this has been thought completely through, or even if it is possible to do so. Ubiquitous use of current antibiotics has led to the emergence of the superbugs, after all. It certainly seems that this research strikes closer to the foundation, but I wonder what the possible effects of that might be. (I might add that I'm almost completely unqualified to even guess.)

gypsy sister,

In the sciences students and postdocs doing the research are mostly being supported as Research Assistants, not Teaching Assistants. Bassler's are probably mostly supported on NIH grants and they will be coauthors on almost all her publications (my students are usually first authors - I get the "star" that identifies me as the PI and the person to whom correspondence is to be addressed however). TAs in my classes get no acknowledgements because they don't do the research discussed in papers or in presentations I give.

Your student will probably not be supported because the "school wants control" of his research. He'll be supported because if he weren't, he'd go somewhere else to grad school! Support forte entire system is provided by mostly government grants - a remarkably cheap way in which the country's scientific establishment was built and maintained - and the remarkably great deal provided by the nation's technological industries.

You'd think the American public would demand a better health care system considering that they supply most of the funds by which the scientists who invented most of it were trained. (My inner "socialist" is speaking.)

...provided by the nation's technological industries.

should read ...provided to the nation's technological industries.

Coincidentally, the May 2009 issue of Scientific American, which arrived in mail today, has an article on this subject, titled "Don't Talk, Reproduce" on page 19 (US edition).

As per this article, quorom sensing amongst bacteria has been known for forty years. Good quorom sensing inhibitors have been hard to find. Disruptors known to work well in animals have proved toxic to humans.

A new approach unveiled in January, by Stuart West of University of Edinburgh, exploits some lazy, mutant bacteria that have a signal-negative or signal-blind tendency. It seems that these bacteria conserve energy by not involving fully in the quorom activity and hence replicate quickly. When they become too prevalent in the bacterial population, its overall virulence drops.

The article also mentions Bonnie Bassler's work toward the end.


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