Study suggests way to short-circuit microbe communication

MADISON - For cell-phone toting humans, the ability to communicate depends on a vast array of technology that includes things like amplifiers and repeaters to speed our words through the ether and ensure their intact arrival at a distant location.

Now, scientists have learned that bacteria use an analogous integrated communications system to sense, retrieve and process the chemical signals they depend on to find nutrients or flee from danger. The new finding, reported today (Jan. 3) in the journal Nature, may help scientists unravel the secrets of how cells communicate with one another, a development that could, among other things, spur new vaccine strategies or the creation of surfaces that naturally repel pathogenic microbes.

Bacteria - and other types of cells - use receptors on their surface to sense their environment and, like a human nose, pick up chemical cues from a distance, said Laura L. Kiessling, a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor of chemistry and biochemistry and the senior author of the Nature paper.

"The receptors act like a sensory organ and help the cell integrate and respond to many different signals," said Kiessling who conducted the study with UW-Madison graduate student Jason E. Gestwicki.

Scientists have long known that the membrane-spanning receptors on cells are conduits of chemical information. What they did not know, according to Kiessling, is that clusters of receptors on the cell surface act in concert to "amplify and integrate sensory information."

In their Nature paper, Kiessling and Gestwicki use a new type of signal, a synthetic multivalent attractant that can interact with several chemoreceptors, to control bacterial responses. They found that the four major types of surface chemoreceptors - each responsible for sensing particular compounds - work as a system to sense their environment and let the cell know whether to move toward or away from the source of a chemical signal.


Contact: Laura Kiessling
University of Wisconsin-Madison

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