Bacillus Loquacious: AI-2 and the Talkative Bacterium

Bacteria are gregarious little creatures, chatting amongst themselves and even with members of other species.

"When we think about bacteria, we think about them as being tiny single-celled organisms that live these very asocial reclusive lives," said Bonnie Bassler, a molecular biologist at Princeton University. "In fact, bacteria have developed language, and the language is chemical."

Individual bacteria secrete signalling molecules into their environment. When these autoinducers reach a critical mass, the quorum sensing capabilities of bacteria come into play. Then, bacteria coordinate their behavior, acting almost like a single multicellular organism.


(From Vibrio fischeri bioluminesce when they sense a quorum)

Not all autoinducers are species-specific; AI-2 is a universal autoinducer understood across bacterial species boundaries. Some scientists belive that AI-2 could serve as the basis for a new class of antibiotics.

Finally, someone is pushing research into the "language" of bacteria in the right direction. To see an example of the wrong direction, read Humans Teach Bacteria New Language in which (mad!) scientists are actually trying to train bacteria to talk with each other in a new way. For the science-fictional point of view, see the discussion of intelligent cells from Greg Bear's 1984 novel Blood Music.

Read more about Talking Bacteria, and How to Shut Them Up.

Scroll down for more stories in the same category. (Story submitted 3/14/2005)

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