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Discovering bacteria's amazing communication system
April 10, 2009 9:15 PM   Subscribe

The secret, social lives of bacteria. "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." [Via]
posted by homunculus (52 comments total) 37 users marked this as a favorite

 
I knew it, the little bastards. Bacteria are the true owners of this planet, we're just their convenient transportation vehicles.
posted by emjaybee at 9:38 PM on April 10, 2009


Wow, that was fascinating.
posted by delmoi at 9:46 PM on April 10, 2009


We're a virus with shoes. “I’m tired of this back-slapping ‘Isn’t humanity neat?’ bullshit. We’re a virus with shoes, okay? That’s all we are." — Bill Hicks ...
posted by hortense at 9:47 PM on April 10, 2009


That was really, really cool. I got that tingly sensation on my brain that happens when I'm learning something new.

Also? I think I have a new crush.
posted by device55 at 9:50 PM on April 10, 2009


Are we talking Noble Prize-level stuff here?
posted by ZenMasterThis at 10:09 PM on April 10, 2009


I don't think the fact that bacteria talk to each other is any surprise to anybody who has read the comments at Little Green Footballs.
posted by Astro Zombie at 10:11 PM on April 10, 2009 [9 favorites]


I don't have time to watch the whole thing tonight (that's tomorrow!), but 4 minutes in, I'm already in love with her because of her obvious comfort with the use of the word "bacterium."

You would be surprised how many people are completely content to use "bacteria" as both the singular and the plural for of the word. (Even life scientists! Even immunologists and microbiologists! Who have tenure and fatty research grants! I'm not kidding!)

I try really hard not to be a grammatical prescriptivist, but the phrase "a bacteria," is just. Fucking. Wrong.

Dr. Bonnie Bassler, "bacterium"-sayer, my heart is forever thine.
posted by palmcorder_yajna at 10:14 PM on April 10, 2009 [2 favorites]


Uh, "form of the word."

Grammar rant + typo = sheepish moron. I'm going to get some dinner now.
posted by palmcorder_yajna at 10:15 PM on April 10, 2009 [3 favorites]


I know, right? Hubba.
posted by device55 at 10:22 PM on April 10, 2009


I wish I knew more about biology. Great talk, but my scifi leanings are telling me that the broad-spectrum one may cause some unexpected problems. (Though it's probably no different than a broad-spec antibiotic, anyway).
posted by Decimask at 10:22 PM on April 10, 2009


I'm not sure about this anti-quorum sensing treatment being a replacement for current antibiotics. Just because it makes a bacterium "deaf" and "mute" doesn't stop them from reproducing so wouldn't you need to either continuously take the treatment or eventually try to kill the bacterium?

But otherwise, this is a fantastic set of discoveries and a great talk. Very exciting stuff. The idea of enhancing friendly bacteria, especially.
posted by effwerd at 10:40 PM on April 10, 2009


A creature without a shadow is so scifi rific, luminous light creatures indeed.
posted by hortense at 10:45 PM on April 10, 2009


The TED interview starts off with the oddest question: "Talk about the implications of your work outside of the context of medicine. Is this going to help us make better yogurt?"
posted by boo_radley at 10:51 PM on April 10, 2009


effwerd: as she explains in the video, if the bacteria were constantly pathogenic, we would weed them out of our bodies before they were a danger. They wait until they have a sufficient mass - the "quorum" that she refers to, and then they flip the biological switch and go pathogenic. If they cannot sense a quorum, they never go pathogenic.
posted by idiopath at 10:52 PM on April 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


Also? I think I have a new crush.

I'm already in love with her because of her obvious comfort with the use of the word "bacterium."

Hubba.

Really?[1][2] Please move out of mom's basement and grow up some.
posted by peeedro at 10:53 PM on April 10, 2009 [8 favorites]


boo_radley: she does allude to uses of this knowledge to help promote beneficial bacteria, and it is not so far a stretch that if the tech was used in that way it would be something like a better yogurt, given that yogurt is just a big old puddle of bacteria in a dairy medium.
posted by idiopath at 10:54 PM on April 10, 2009


my stomach hurts
posted by thatwhichfalls at 11:01 PM on April 10, 2009


I'm sorry that you find an honest, positive response to a person with so much to say and who is so brilliant and humble (did you see the shout out to the students?) to be so off putting. Did someone pee in your Cornflakes?
posted by device55 at 11:07 PM on April 10, 2009


This post blew my mind.
posted by KokuRyu at 11:08 PM on April 10, 2009


I realize that, but I'd think there's better ways to ask about beneficial bacteria than contextualizing around yogurt. Maybe the interviewer just wanted to make sure questions were approachable to a non-molecular-biologist audience , I dunno.
posted by boo_radley at 11:10 PM on April 10, 2009


Also we can't have people admiring women scientists.
posted by boo_radley at 11:11 PM on April 10, 2009


There's no piss in my cornflakes, I'm disappointed that "Hubba" is how you choose to express your admiration. I see you can do much better.
posted by peeedro at 11:14 PM on April 10, 2009


Between something like this to trick biofilms into dissolving and bacteriophages, I think we have some promising avenues of research. Our current antibiotics just aren't as effective anymore. More importantly, it takes effort to overcome antibiotics. With even more weapons in our arsenal to attack bacteria, the stress of adapting to all of these things will put a cramp in their style.

That armor plating they seem to evolve so rapidly does not come without a cost.
posted by adipocere at 11:18 PM on April 10, 2009


Fair enough. How's about not accusing folks of living in basements when providing constructive criticism?

I thought this was a fantastic TED talk (they are not all created equal) - the content of the talk will likely prove to be very important in years to come (when I'm old and grey this science will keep me from suffering from pneumonia), and the speaker's enthusiasm for the work and her colleagues was simply charming. I immediately sent a link out to anyone who might be mildly science minded, because it's just that awesome.
posted by device55 at 11:27 PM on April 10, 2009


I'm going to have to watch that again a few more times, and I'll have to make time for this much longer presentation, too.

Bacteria can talk -- in fact, they're multilingual. They can vote. They can fight. They can distinguish between self and others. They're even amateur genealogists. Good God, what's to stop them from becoming an organic Skynet?
posted by maudlin at 11:29 PM on April 10, 2009


if the bacteria were constantly pathogenic, we would weed them out of our bodies before they were a danger.

I did get that from the talk but I was wondering what would happen if they never go virulent but are beyond the activation threshold. She says in the interview they would be weeded out in that case, too. Which makes sense now that I actually put some thought into it.
posted by effwerd at 11:37 PM on April 10, 2009


effwerd: as she explains in the video, if the bacteria were constantly pathogenic, we would weed them out of our bodies before they were a danger. They wait until they have a sufficient mass - the "quorum" that she refers to, and then they flip the biological switch and go pathogenic. If they cannot sense a quorum, they never go pathogenic.

That was one thing I thought was odd about her talk. She made it sound like these bacteria were plotting against us or something. Just waiting until enough of them were in our bodies to really "take us down" But it seems obvious that pathogenicy is maladaptive. If these bacteria weren't harmful, they could stay in our bodies forever. On the other hand, if they kill us they're dead and it's harder to pass themselves along to other people.

So it's not clear to me, from an evolutionary standpoint the bacteria have to gain by waiting until there are a sufficient number of them to go nuts. Maybe there is some evolutionary advantage (like, phase one, spread through normal contact, phase two, make the person sick for some reason)

It would be nice if she explained what that might be, but it did seem like she was trying to talk quickly to fit her speech into 20 minutes.
posted by delmoi at 11:39 PM on April 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


Just guessing, but the pathogenic phase may not be related to the host environment specifically.

From a bacterium's perspective is a host body any different than, say, a warm pond?

Perhaps a pathogenic phase is present in some bacteria to combat other bacteria. The damage to the host may not be a selective pressure.

e.g. I'm a bacteria. Me and my fam can only survive if we kill off a similar family of bacteria through pathogenic attack. The risk of this behavior is that our host environment may turn against us (with a fever and antibodies) - but if it's successful, our numbers may be reduced, but our competitors are eliminated.
posted by device55 at 11:48 PM on April 10, 2009


instead of creating quorum suppressing medicines, wouldn't it make more sense to mimic quorum chemicals? the problem with quorum suppression is that if therapy is stopped or becomes ineffective, you've allowed all these potentially virulent bacteria in your body to reproduce past the point of quorum. bad news. better to make the few virulent bacterium reveal themselves before they're numerous enough to do real damage, no? also, i love the fact that the signals are metabolic byproducts with a twist, like steroids in humans.

time to read her papers.
posted by wayofthedodo at 12:13 AM on April 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


Taking the Resistance Out of Drug-Resistant Infections: It started out as a research project focused on getting rid of harmful bacterial accumulations called biofilms. Now it has the potential to make conventional antibiotics work against stubborn, drug-resistant bacteria.
posted by homunculus at 12:17 AM on April 11, 2009


Good God, what's to stop them from becoming an organic Skynet?

"Them", John Henry?
posted by Sparx at 1:22 AM on April 11, 2009


PAGING GREG BEAR. GREG BEAR TO THE REALITY PHONE.
posted by loquacious at 3:44 AM on April 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


using a chemical language that lets them coordinate defense and mount attacks.

Leeeroy Jenkins!!!!!
posted by PeterMcDermott at 4:22 AM on April 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


If these bacteria communicate so much how come none of them have an account here yet?
Seriously though excellent talk.
posted by adamvasco at 4:47 AM on April 11, 2009


Antibiotics don't kill all the bacteria in your body, they slow down their growth enough for your body to keep up and kill the pathogens.
posted by Samuel Farrow at 5:11 AM on April 11, 2009


There's an echo of this behavior in the recent Conficker computer virus; it acts as a (relatively) benign virus and saturates the various networks it can reach. Once it hits critical mass, the P2P transmissions become a useful way to coordinate behavior across infected hosts.
posted by jenkinsEar at 6:40 AM on April 11, 2009


I welcome our new (old) bacteriological overlords.
posted by oddman at 6:40 AM on April 11, 2009


If these bacteria weren't harmful, they could stay in our bodies forever.

the problem with quorum suppression is that if therapy is stopped or becomes ineffective, you've allowed all these potentially virulent bacteria in your body to reproduce past the point of quorum.

This is what I thought the problem would be, but apparently it wouldn't be. From the interview:

So, if the bacteria can't count themselves and thus, can’t carry out these group virulence activities that are critical for enabling them to stay in the host, the immune system just gets rid of them.

I'd imagine as they reach the activation threshold and beyond, the odds go up that the immune system will be able to identify the foreign body and eliminate it.
posted by effwerd at 7:01 AM on April 11, 2009


FELOW HOOMANZ BAKTEERIA R GOOD WE SHULD NOT TRY TOO KIL THEM OK!
posted by orme at 7:10 AM on April 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


Wouldn't you require a constant re-dose of the communication suppressant to keep the bacteria (which would presumably multiply way beyond the lethal level) from going pathogenic?
posted by Decimask at 7:49 AM on April 11, 2009


That was a great talk, really engaging, and inspiring of interest in all things bacterial. I'd always kinda thought that bacteria were interesting, but this has provoked me to want to learn much more about how they work.
posted by MetaMonkey at 9:05 AM on April 11, 2009


Oh great, so you're interrupting the communication of the bacteria, so that the bacteria that survive have greater interspecies communication skills and gradually grow more complex. This is a great idea.
posted by geoff. at 9:54 AM on April 11, 2009


I for one welcome our new bacterial...

It's amazing that you can pack more science and interest and cool into 20min that they manage in the average episode of Horizon.

Probably because biology is the science I know least about this sort of stuff blows my mind - (especially see the cell biology stuff in A Short History Of Nearly Everything)
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 10:25 AM on April 11, 2009


I suspect that human cells are also able to recognize many of these bacterial lines of communications and are able to bot elicit and confound them. Since animals co-evolved with bacteria and, as the speaker notes, are highly dependent on stable and flourishing bacterial communities for their continued existence, it seems unlikely that this wouldn't be the case.
posted by Auden at 10:27 AM on April 11, 2009


Obligatory (Tezuka and Kodansha manga award winner) Moyashimon mention

(I've heard the animation was not so great but fortunately for english speakers Del Rey will put it out this coming fall)
posted by Frikki at 10:35 AM on April 11, 2009


Going off what Auden said, I'm assuming that very likely there wouldn't be any problem, but couldn't there be possible negative outcomes if a communique gets misinterpreted by some other beneficial bacteria (I know, I know, I heard that the A nodes are bacteria-specific) or by our own cells that have adapted over time. And if a bacteria-wide memo goes out (on the calling all cars, B receptor node) and that one bacteria, which you can visualize in your mind's eye as a cute little guy drawn by a 1950's era Disney team, complete with charming personality, gets discombobulated and starts warring with the nano-tech-goop soon to be floating around within us...well? what about then, huh?
posted by Sir BoBoMonkey Pooflinger Esquire III at 1:20 PM on April 11, 2009


Additionally, couldn't there be some similarities with the bacterio-luminescent squid in regard to timing and bacteria blooms within our bodies in how we normally function. Like, for instance, couldn't the sun (and I'm just picking that factor realizing that there could be a large variety of activators [bacteria that bloom upon severe pain receptor response, upon going to sleep at normal hours, upon orgasm, child-birth, carb-digestion]) ...but back to the sun; couldn't the sun play a role in how bacteria bloom and cause or suppress diseases or syndromes in humans? I'm thinking about how certain diseases and syndromes are more prevalent in northern climates, or how lower vitamin D counts in people (in less sunny climes) often has negative side effects. Could it be that the sun and/or vitamin D activate/suppress beneficial/negative blooms of bacteria? And when I drink my 4 cups of joe a day and the stress of modern life, whatever that may mean to you, harshes on my adrenal gland and the bacteria that usually are all getting along, balanced, centered, communicating freely, or not,...when things go awry, was it the sex-flush from my morning roll, my cup of joe, or the starless-bellied bacteria vying for attention that sent my lower Lorax into a frizzy to a point in which a Horton could no longer hear a Who? What do you say to that, Dr. Pharma-Suess?
posted by Sir BoBoMonkey Pooflinger Esquire III at 1:24 PM on April 11, 2009


Since animals co-evolved with bacteria and, as the speaker notes, are highly dependent on stable and flourishing bacterial communities for their continued existence, it seems unlikely that this wouldn't be the case.

IIRC, we're more bacteria than we are human, in cell count. We're lucky our bacteria are giving us a ride. They're the ones that are really in control of our health.
posted by five fresh fish at 5:50 PM on April 11, 2009


Oh great, so you're interrupting the communication of the bacteria, so that the bacteria that survive have greater interspecies communication skills and gradually grow more complex. This is a great idea.

Hasn't that already happened, i.e., us? I would think that simplicity is at least part of bacterial staying power; more complexity means more to go wrong.

In my alternate life (the one where I took the science path), I'd be someone like Bonnie Bassler. Fell in love with the sheer weirdness of diseases caused by virus/bacteria the first time I read much about the Black Death; sadly that happened long after I had taken a different course in life.
posted by emjaybee at 6:36 PM on April 11, 2009


If these bacteria communicate so much how come none of them have an account here yet

They're too busy commenting on YouTube.
posted by unSane at 7:16 PM on April 11, 2009 [2 favorites]


IIRC, we're more bacteria than we are human, in cell count. We're lucky our bacteria are giving us a ride. They're the ones that are really in control of our health.

In "cell count" maybe, but human cells are much larger then bacteria. I think if you went by weight, far more of the mass of our bodies is human. Also, we are born without any bacteria in our bodies, I believe.
posted by delmoi at 12:40 AM on April 12, 2009


We're a virus with shoes. “I’m tired of this back-slapping ‘Isn’t humanity neat?’ bullshit. We’re a virus with shoes, okay? That’s all we are." — Bill Hicks ...

This is a position that is becoming more likely as we learn about the history or our genome. We already know that we have a lot of active virus DNA in our genome, but beyond that viruses may have been the key actor in the evolution of the eukaryotic nucleus, which was the starting point to multicellularity and sexual reproduction.
posted by afu at 2:09 AM on April 12, 2009


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