From Jones and Bartlett, a book on Stem Cells from Dr. Ann A. Kiessling and Scott C. Anderson:

Selected Articles:

August 2, 2003

Small Talk

Turns out, bacteria can communicate. Are they talking behind our backs?

A few years ago, Bonnie Bassler discovered something fishy about the bacteria she was studying. Actually, they were already pretty fishy, since these diminutive critters lived in the bodies of deep-sea fish, squid and jellyfish. Weirder still, these bacteria could glow a most beguiling moonlight blue.

This was great for the fish, who could use them as a gaudy glowing lure, and pretty cool for the squid, who could use the glow to become virtually invisible in the moonlit sea. But it was a conundrum for Dr. Bassler, who couldn't figure out why the bacteria insisted on waiting for a crowd to show up before starting to get a glow on. It seemed to imply that the bacteria could somehow talk to each other in order to agree upon when to start glowing. But everyone knew that bacteria couldn't possibly communicate. They were, after all, only bacteria.

But after much hard work, Dr. Bassler (now at Princeton) finally found a chemical she called a signaling molecule. As the bacteria multiplied they would secrete this signaling molecule and at a certain threshold they would be fairly swimming in the stuff. At that point, they would all start to glow in unison. Dr. Bassler had discovered the language of bacteria. Because it's triggered by a specific density of bacteria, it's known as "quorum sensing." Every year since, new types of bacteria have been added to the growing roster of microscopic chatterboxes. Many of them can speak two languages, letting them hold conversations with different species.

Glowing Bacteria (c) 2003 by Scott AndersonSo what does that mean for you, other than providing a good reason to toss away any seafood that glows in the dark? Well, some of the bacteria being researched are about as nasty as they can be, including cholera, TB and the plague - and they're all talking behind your back. About what? Well, unfortunately, they're plotting to kill or at least maim you: by observing their version of radio silence, they can infiltrate your body without alarming the guardian cells of the immune system. Then, as soon as their numbers are unstoppable, their attack is launched. The clinical term for this is "Yikes!"

Dr. Bassler's discovery may help researchers find a completely new way to stop these decidedly unfriendly bacteria. Preliminary work indicates that when these gregarious bacteria are chemically gagged, they can't issue the call to arms and are thus rendered impotent. That would be a nice breakthrough, seeing as how we're entering a scary new era of bacterial resistance - and we're running out of solutions.

Dr. Bassler's work may just save your life. Not bad for paying attention to small talk.

Dr. Bassler responds:

"Its wonderful! It's the most straightforward description of QS [quorum sensing] I've ever read! I'll send it to my father who, no matter how many times I go through it, cannot seem to understand what I work on!"

-- Bonnie Bassler

For more information on Dr. Bassler's work, check out these sites:

Copyright © 2000-2014 by Scott Anderson
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Here are some other suggested readings in bacteriology: