Bacteria Transmit Signals Through Percolation, According to UCSD Study

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Bacteria may use the same mechanism that allows coffee makers and ocean oil rigs to function, according to UC San Diego research released Wednesday.

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Microbiologists believe percolation may allow bacteria to relay signals that help communities thrive and survive threats.

Clusters of microorganisms, called biofilms, are found nearly everywhere, including soil, drain pipes and the surface of teeth, according to UCSD.

Cells at the edge of biofilms tend to grow more quickly than those of the interior because they have access to more nutrients. To keep edge growth in check and ensure the entire community is fed, cells of the biofilm interior send electrochemical signals to exterior cells that halt edge consumption, allowing nutrients to pass through to interior cells to avoid starvation.

Bacteria lack structures to relay electrochemical signals, such as the axons found in neurons. With the study released Wednesday, researchers wanted to know how communities sent such signals. They studied individual cells under fluorescence microscopes, and found that the amount of cells firing signals, and their distribution in space, reflected percolation.

Scientists have used percolation theory since the 1950s to explain how signals are transmitted across a network of diverse components, according to UCSD.

It’s the same mechanism that allows hot water to travel through individual coffee grounds, or petroleum through porous oceanic bedrock.

“It’s interesting that these bacteria, which are so-called simple, single-cell organisms, are using a fairly sophisticated strategy to solve this community-level problem,” said Joseph Larkin with UCSD. “It’s sophisticated enough that we humans are using it to extract oil, for example.”

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UCSD researchers worked on the study with Purdue University scientists.

Findings were published in Wednesday’s issue of the “Cell Systems” journal.

–City News Service

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