Wednesday, April 25, 2012

the tiniest social network: addendum

those of you who watched bonnie bassler's ted talk below already know about this, but i feel like this is important to point out:

social networking at its most useful? courtesy of xkcd
not everyone loves social behavior like i do. there aren't even that many biologists that would consider sitting down to construct a social network (yes, that's something other than facebook) to be fun. however, everyone gets sick, and often that sickness is due to bacterial infection.

you've probably heard about the problem of antibiotic resistance. when bacteria are exposed to antibiotics some of them randomly have genes that give them to resistance to the drug. if the drug kills bacteria by popping their cell membranes, these bacteria are un-poppable. the bacteria survive the antibiotic invasion, and can live another day. they obviously have a huge genetic advantage in environments where antibiotics are present, and, because it's genetic, their offspring will also be resistant. because bacteria reproduce so quickly, before you know it, you have an entire population of drug-resistant bacteria. (hello, evolution!)

image via health news

different strains of bacteria can become resistant to entire suites of antibiotics, and then those infections become very, very hard to treat. MRSA (aka Staph infection) has been in the news quite a bit lately as a strain of bacteria that is particularly hard to treat. MRSA stands for methicillin-resistanct Staphylococcus aureus, methicillin being an antibiotic, and S. aureus being the bacterial species. MRSA isn't just resistant to methicillin. methicillin was developed specifically to deal with bacterial infections resistant to penicillin. this is the state of medicine: bacteria respond to antibiotics as quickly as or even faster than we can synthesize new ones.

here's where the bassler lab comes into play: bacteria do not produce the toxins that make you sick if they are alone. they just hang out and wait for the population to get large enough to do some damage. if you can convince a population of bacteria that they are alone, they will stop producing toxins. once the toxins are good, you will start to feel better, and your immune system can clear the infection. read more about this concept and the work the bassler lab has been doing at their lab website.

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