Socially Networked Bacteria Isn't As Scary As It Sounds

It's safe to say that anytime bacteria develops human-like traits, we should be startled. We've long known that the tiny little critters have ways of smelling and tasting, and then earlier this year we learned about their simplistic economics system. Now, scientists have learned that they use social networks too.

A team of biologists at the Berkeley Lab's Life Sciences Division just published an in depth look at these so-called social bacteria, and the details are fascinating. Despite previously held notions, the Myxococcus xanthus bacteria commonly found in soil operate less as individual organisms and more as one superorganism. Using futuristic 3D scanning electron microscopy, the team found that the individual microbes are actually all connected by thin, threadlike membranes. Scientists have spotted this material in the past but wrote it off as extraneous matter in the petri dish.

It's hardly extraneous. Thanks to the membrane a small colony of M. xanthus can operate almost as a single connected organism, communicating from one side of the mass to the other, swarming around food like its favourite, E. coli, and coordinating defences in the event of an attack. "The network could be a mode of stealth communication," says Manfred Auer, a staff scientist at the Berkeley lab and an author on the paper, told the press. "M. xanthus faces stiff competition and has a lot of enemies, so it pays to keep a low profile."

The breakthrough in understanding how bacteria communicate with each other is particularly intriguing in the age of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. It's believed that some bacteria communicate with each other when a threat like antibiotics approaches and scrambles to defend itself. However, if we took out that connective membrane and effectively severed the lines of communication, there's a chance we might take out the bacteria's ability to defend itself.

So you see: Socially networked bacteria isn't so horrifying after all. Sure, it's a little unnerving to think about antibiotic-resistant superorganisms. But when the very thing that makes the organism super also spells its downfall, well there's a happy comic book ending in there somewhere. [Environmental Microbiology via Wired]

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