Bacteria perceive environment as humans, research reveals

Bacteria, as well as humans, feel the environment, a finding that could lead to the development of better drugs against bacterial infections, researchers at the University of Colorado in Boulder said in the United States.

The finding, released on Wednesday and regarded as “the first documented observation” of the sense of touch in individual bacteria, is the result of a study conducted with Escherichia coli bacteria.

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According to Giancarlo Bruni of the University’s Department of Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology, both bacteria and humans use small electrical impulses generated by calcium ions to transmit information from the environment around the nervous and sensory system (or its bacterial equivalent).

“Humans and bacteria are not so different,” Bruni said of the finding published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and made in conjunction with Joel Kralj, Andrew Weekley, and Benjamin Dodd.

Scientists already knew that bacteria react to the environment and behave differently if, for example, they have access to sugar or are on a hard or soft surface, but the new study found that bacteria “feel” environment.

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To prove this, Bruni and his colleagues placed the bacteria on a sticky surface and observed them under a microscope. If nothing touched the bacteria, they remained “erased.” When they were touched or pushed, they “lit”, that is, they emitted a dim light indicating that they were using electricity to transmit information.

“We believe what could be happening is that bacteria use these electrical signals to modify their lifestyle,” explained Professor Kralj, who is part of the BioFrontiers Institute.

This means that bacteria and humans share “a common tool to feel the surrounding environment,” and the electrical signals and origins of the human neuronal system, from an evolutionary perspective, would go back to “billions of years,” since bacteria are present among the oldest organisms on the planet. But it also means that the “common tool” could now be used against bacteria since it is precisely this tool that makes certain bacteria survive antibiotics. Therefore, the next step of the study, according to the researchers, will be to determine how bacteria use their electrical impulses to infect human cells. “If we block the electrical activity of the bacteria, they may be less likely to infect, basically because they will not know where they are and therefore will not know how to act,” Kralj said.

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