Preventing Bacteria From Communicating May Help in Defeating It

September 10, 2009 07:00 AM
by Haley A. Lovett
A few studies have found that blocking the communication molecules sent out by bacteria can render them practically harmless, and may prevent the evolution of resistant strains.

Communication, not Antibiotics, May Be Key in Fighting Bacterial Infections

In the latest of a series of bacteria-fighting studies, Bonnie Bassler and other scientists found that worms could live through bacterial infections that would normally kill them, so long as the scientists were able to stop the bacteria from communicating.

But how do bacteria communicate? Gautam Naik of The Wall Street Journal explains that the communication, called quorum sensing, is really just the excretion and reception of chemical molecules from one bacterium to another. When a bacterium receives the chemical signal from another, it knows it is not alone. For some bacteria, once they sense a certain number of others, they will begin to attack the host.

The study, published in the July 31 issue of Molecular Cell, found that certain engineered molecules were able to block bacteria receptors, prevent bacterium from knowing whether it was alone or in a group and prevent the bacteria from going into “attack” mode.

The appealing nature of this tactic for fighting bacterial infections is that blocking communication does not actually kill the bacteria. In traditional methods of bacterial treatment, such as antibiotics, Naik explains that bacteria vulnerable to the treatment die, and only the treatment-resistant bacteria goes on to reproduce, creating the potential for treatment-resistant strains to develop. MRSA is one example of bacteria that has become resistant to treatment, and some blame the need for super clean living, and the overuse of antibacterial solutions, for the emergence of MRSA and other treatment-resistant strains of bacteria.

Bassler’s study is not the first of its kind. Last year researchers from the University of Iowa used fruit flies to examine possible ways to fight the bacterium P. aeruginosa, which can also infect humans. The scientists discovered that certain proteins, possessed by some humans but not the flies, could reduce the bacteria’s quorum sensing abilities. After giving the flies the human protein, the flies did not succumb to the potentially deadly bacteria. 

Reference: Good bacteria

A lot of bacteria-related news focuses the dangers of bacteria, but there are many essential functions of bacteria for humans. Naik points out that bacteria is essential for digestion, and that the human body may be comprised largely of bacteria in combination with our own cells. Some uncommon bacteria may also have unlikely beneficial side effects. A 2008 study found that the H. pylori bacteria (known to cause ulcers and stomach cancer) may also make children less likely to get asthma.

Bacteria may also prove to be helpful to the environment. Scientist Kevin O’Connor knew that there were bacteria that could survive on a waste product of plastic bottles, and bacteria that could produce a biodegradable type of plastic. Last year, O’Connor found a bacterium that could do both.

Related Topics: Other unlikely communicators; Animals, robots

For decades researchers have struggled to understand how animals communicate, and the debate continues about whether humans are the only species that can actually use language.

One group unveiled a dog translator, claiming that it could translate a dog’s noises into a linguistic expression of the dog's mood. But the product was only slightly more accurate at deciphering a dog’s mood than a human’s unaided guess.

For some animals, communication is as vital for survival as it is in the bacteria population. Researchers in Australia blame the noise pollution created by ships for blocking communication among whales and other ocean life, resulting in mass beachings.

A recent study of robots found that giving them the ability to communicate the location of "food," combined with giving them the ability to evolve, resulted in a population of robots that would deceive one another as to the location of the food. 

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