Friday, June 18, 2010

The Chatty Lives of Bacteria


Did you know that bacteria actually talk to one another? They do, using a chemical language that was discovered by Princeton University's Bonnie Bassler. I first discovered Bonnie through her fabulous TED talk on the social lives of bacteria. Watch it here.

This photo shows a petri dish from her lab that has been swabbed with marine bacteria that glow in the dark. The bacteria glow only when enough of them are present to create a bright light. The chemical language they use to communicate and "take roll" makes all this possible.

The process these bacteria use to produce this self-organized collective action is itself an example of complexity in action. The chemicals that the bacteria give off to signal "I am here!" are called auto-inducers.

This means that the presence of the signal molecule induces more of it to be produced. This leads to a kind of "chemical amplification" of the signal, boosting its intensity as more cells enter the region.

I've recently been invited to write occasional posts for LiveScience.com and my first article, on this very topic, went up today. Read it here.

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