Listening in on bacteria “conversations” help in efforts to keep deadly infections in check

Published 27 October 2006

There may be a debate about the legality of eavesdropping by the NSA on U.S. phone conversation, but few would question listening in on conversations among bacteria – conversations carried out by chemical signals bacteria use to communicate with each other – because these conversations give us knowledge on how to block deadly infections

Scientists are listening to bacterial conversations, conversations carried out by chemical signals bacteria exchange in order to communicate with each other, in an effort to design new compounds to combat deadly infections, especially those involved in the problem of antibiotic resistance. An article by Sarah Everts in the recent issue of Chemical & Engineering News shows that researchers have made significant progress in decoding bacterial conversations, also known as quorum sensing, a phenomenon first discovered in the 1970s by a group of biologists who were exploring bioluminescent bacteria found in squid.

Twenty years later, the notion of bacterial conversations had stimulated new research efforts after the process was observed in other species of bacteria, particularly pathogenic species, Everts writes. Today, chemists are designing new compounds to mute these chemical conversations in an effort to stop the growth of E. coli, Staphylococcus, anthrax, and infections that affect the lungs of cystic fibrosis patients. Researchers also have identified compounds which can potentially silence pesky biofilms, slimy envelopes of carbohydrates that bacteria produce to defend themselves from attack. These biofilms threaten medical implants, fuel tanks in jet planes, and even dental health. Scientists still do not know the intricate secrets behind bacterial conversations, but they are moving closer toward stopping some of bacteria’s most harmful effects, according to the article.

-read more in Sarah Everts, “Bacterial Conversations: Using a Chemical Language, Bacteria Coordinate Everything from Infection to Plaque Buildup,” Chemical & Engineering News 84, no. 43 (23 October 2006): 17-26 (sub. req.)