As humans, when we need to get things done, we talk. We see our way of communication as special and only available to us. Well, it may be true in some instances, but communication is available to all living things around us, and even living things that are inside of us.
Bacteria are present in you and on you in a huge way. According to an Anaerobe science journal study done on our “gut” flora, we have approximately 10 times as many bacterial cells in us or on us compared to human cells at any given time. When someone mentions bacteria, we like to think about the evil (pathogenic) bacteria that harm us. Before you start engulfing yourself with antibacterial spray, these bacteria on us are harmless or even beneficial to our body.
Am I telling you that these colonies of bacteria can actually be good for you? In a sense, yes! Bacteria help you digest your food, keep your stomach feeling just right and cover your skin with an extra protective layer. They have to have some way of doing all of this — and the way they do it is through talking. Bacteria talk to each other and are able to amplify their effect on the environment. Even though these good bacteria communicate to help you, bad bacteria can also communicate to harm you. The trick is finding a way to manipulate this communication to get rid of the bad bacteria and even help the good bacteria work better.
The drug industry’s current solution of antibiotics that kill bacteria (good and bad) is not helpful. Understanding how bacteria communicate is essential to creating a better way to combating bacteria. Professor Bonnie Bassler of Princeton University wrote a paper published in the Annual Review of Cell and Developmental Biology, and I looked into her research for a solution.
The mechanism of how bacteria communicate is termed quorum sensing. Quorum-sensing bacteria have the ability to produce and release chemicals to recognize similar and different bacteria in their vicinity. Instead of one bacterium acting alone, the community of bacteria use this quorum-sensing ability to produce a large response or action. Imagine 100 Billy Mays selling you OxiClean — that’s some powerful quorum sensing. Professor Bassler also found that bacteria can use this sensing not just to talk, but to talk to other species of bacteria around it, and even disrupt the negative communication between bacteria.
This look at the quorum-sensing ability can produce big benefits. Consider the benefits of therapies and drugs if they were manufactured around suppressing or enhancing quorum sensing. Many of us have a notion that antibiotics could simply do the trick; however, antibiotics target bacteria by a simple “kill all” system. This system does not work most of the time, as bacteria evolve quickly (probably in the same amount of time it took you to finish this sentence), causing antibiotics to become ineffective. The quorum-sensing effect holds more value because of its ability to disrupt the communication of the bacteria, rendering their actions useless. It also gives us the ability to zero in on what type of bacteria we want to target, so there are no friendly casualties to bacteria that help us!
Professor Bassler explored game-changing properties of bacteria that I think research universities should further fund and explore. Funding further quorum sensing research would change the medical industry for the better. Simplifying antibiotics to target bacterial communication could eliminate the need for antibiotics that you would have to take several times to get better. What I hope we see in the near future is an antibiotic that walks the walk and talks the talk — I guess I should say “ends the talk,” but you know what I mean.
If you want to discuss how bacteria changed your life with UMAYR SUFI email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or send a tweet his way @umsufi.