Courtesy UC San Diego Center for Microbiome Innovation
Courtesy UC San Diego Center for Microbiome Innovation

Biologists at UC San Diego have discovered that for millions of years, communities of bacteria faced with limited nutrients have been resorting to a timesharing strategy in which they alternate feeding periods to maximize efficiency in consumption, according to a study published Thursday.

Researchers in a molecular biology laboratory in UC San Diego’s Division of Biological Sciences, along with colleagues at the Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Spain, asked what competing communities of bacteria might do when food becomes scarce.

The answers were provided in a study published in the journal “Science.”

“What’s interesting here is that you have these simple, single-celled bacteria that are tiny and seem to be lonely creatures, but in a community, they start to exhibit very dynamic and complex behaviors you would attribute to more sophisticated organisms or a social network,” Gurol Suel, associate director of the San Diego Center for Systems Biology and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute — Simons Faculty Scholar at UC San Diego said. “It’s the same timesharing concept used in computer science, vacation homes and a lot of social applications.”

In January, Suel and his colleagues discovered that structured communities of bacteria, or “biofilms,” use electrical signals to communicate with and recruit neighboring bacterial species. The new study investigates how two biofilm communities interact.

Through mathematical models and laboratory evidence using microfluidic techniques and time-lapse microscopy, the researchers found that nearby biofilm communities will engage in synchronized behaviors through these electrical signals.

The experiments revealed that when biofilms faced scenarios of limited amounts of nutrients, they began to alternate their feeding periods to reduce competition and avoid “traffic jams” of consumption.

“These bacteria are just about everywhere — from your teeth to soil to drain pipes,” Suel said. “It’s interesting to think that these simple organisms 2 billion years ago developed the same timesharing strategy that we humans are now using for all kinds of purposes.”

The discovery is the latest advancement from UC San Diego’s Center for Microbiome Innovation.

The study was supported by the San Diego Center for Systems Biology, the National Science Foundation, National Institute of General Medical Sciences, and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, among others.

—City News Service