Tuesday, April 24, 2012

the tiniest social network







for those of you who don't know me personally, before i became a teacher i got a master's degree in biology. even though i no longer do my own research, i still get excited about all of the research coming out of academia, especially those studies related to animals. i have a tendency to think that anything related to animal behavior is far superior to just about anything else.


attending an AP bio prep session with my students a few weeks ago, one of the presenters showed the ted talk above, and it BLEW. MY. FREAKING. MIND. 

as i said, i'm typically not much for single-celled organisms, so i had never really considered bacteria as a source of interesting research. a terribly ignorant bias, i know. obviously research on bacteria is important; it can help keep you healthy, but interesting? related to my love of social behavior? i think not. or i thought not, until i heard bonnie bassler speak.


turns out, bacteria communicate using small chemicals that they excrete and receive from other individuals. not only do they communicate, they use these chemical 'words' to make collective decisions in a process called quorum sensing. 

those decisions can result in something pretty (make fluorescent protein and glow) or something harmful (release toxic chemicals and try to overthrow the human host) among other things. looks like the greeks weren't the first to invent democracy after all.

as a grad student, i studied things like how animals make decisions and interact with others with the unconscious assumption that a brain would be a prerequisite for such behavior. oh how wrong i was. the ancient, single-celled versions of life we are constantly trying to kill with hand sanitizer and clorox are talking to each other, and i would guess they've been doing this since before humans were even on the scene. they can talk to members of their own species, and, even crazier, they can talk to members of other species. there are species-specific chemical messages as well as chemical messages that bacteria of all stripes can understand.

just think about that for a second... while we tend to lump bacteria into one big group, they are actually extremely diverse. 

it would be a bit like humans all being able to communicate with a single language, and then also having a separate 'mammals' language. 

when was the last time you got together with all the mammals in your neighborhood for a meeting? never, you say? well bacteria are doing it all the time. no wonder they've been here so long.

have you ever learned something about science that was totally unexpected? when was the last time someone shared something scientific with you that changed the way you view the world? please share your eye-opening experiences here. i would love to hear them!

want to learn more about bacteria and quorum sensing? click here for information about the bassler lab.

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