BOZEMAN, MT--If bacteria could talk, their conversations might go something like this:
"Stay with us , in this nice place, and make slime or we'll all float off and starve to death." Or, "It's too crowded here. Let's colonize somewhere else."
Bacteria, in fact, do speak a chemical language, and scientists at Montana State University and elsewhere have reported discovering the first few words that govern the growth of bacteria in sticky clusters called biofilms.
The group has published its findings in the April 10 issue of the journal Science . The scientists are David Davies and William Costerton at MSU; Matthew Parsek and Pete Greenberg at the University of Iowa; and James Pearson and Barbara Iglewski at the University of Rochester, New York.
Although not a household word, biofilms are an everyday occurrence, especially in industrial and some medical settings. They clog pipes and foul the hulls of ships. They can create chronic infections in catheters and artificial valves and joints. They may be responsible for ear infections in youngsters. And it's been known for a long time that they rot your teeth.
With today's report, scientists have begun talking cautiously about controlling biofilms not with toxic biocides and antibiotics but by disrupting their own natural messaging system.
"In general, the idea is that we have discovered that bacterial behavior can be modified chemically," said David Davies, the paper's lead author. "These chemicals come from the bacteria themselves."
But first, a bit about bacterial habits. Almost since the time of Louis Pasteur, scientists have thought about and studied bacteria as individual cells floating freely through the bloodstream or in saliva or in a creek.