Thursday, September 21, 2006

Learning lab: What bacteria can teach us about communication and teamwork

Bacteria can communicate and work in concertRegular readers may remember "What's bugging us: Cockroaches rival humans in ability to make decisions as groups", a post that signaled my return to blogging following a brief break.

I now return to blogging at the end of a similar break. Therefore, it seemed somehow fitting to do so with a post that explores a related theme. This one concerns not cockroaches, but an even lowlier lifeform: germs.

Not only do cockroaches work well in groups, but so, too, do bacteria, according to "A Biologist's Listening Guide to Bacteria", a recent story on National Public Radio, which featured an interview with Bonnie Bassler, a professor of molecular biology at Princeton University, who has made some intriguing discoveries regarding marine bacteria.

Bassler's work demonstrated the capacity of these tiny organisms to actually communicate with each other. In studies done on glow-in-the-dark bacteria, Bassler and her assistants learned that

It turns out that when one of these bacteria is all alone, it doesn't glow. After all, that would be a waste of effort because nothing could ever see such a tiny amount of light. But it does send out chemical signals that say, hey I'm here ... and it listens back for other bacteria sending the same signal.

When enough bacteria are doing this, they know they have a quorum. All of a sudden, they light up and do all sorts of other things to act in concert, like a super-organism.

"So they turn on and off 100 different genes, to let them turn off behaviors that are good when you're alone and turn on genes that are good when you are a community. And for reasons we don't understand, the gene that lets them make this beautiful blue light is one of the genes they turn on," Bassler says.
Okay, folks, if cockroaches and bacteria can communicate and work together, what’s up with us humans? Hmmm?