Revelation of the Week: ‘Bacteria Speak Molecular Esperanto’

Thanks to my favourite radio programme, The Material World, I now know two new ‘words’: the first one is ‘nutraceutical’ and the second one (well, not really a word but two) is ‘quorum sensing’. A Canadian website gives an amusing definition of ‘nutraceutical’, which is:

‘A nutraceutical is a product isolated or purified from foods that is generally sold in medicinal forms not usually associated with foods.’

Basically it’s concentrated food components in capsules which claim to have certain health benefits. Garlic oil capsules are one example.

‘Quorum sensing’ was described in the programme as ‘microbial Esperanto’ that is spoken in ‘bacteria city’. Unlike the Esperanto of the macroscale, its microbial version is a very successful form of communication between bacteria. How do they talk then? They apparently release different numbers of molecules into their environment called ‘signalling molecules’. Apparently, bacteria do not employ a universal language, so not all species of bacteria can communicate amongst each other and form one large conspiracy. Unfortunately, for bacterial cospiracy theorists at least, scientists – after their initial joy over discovering this language – are already researching how to turn this bacterial communication off! According to the programme, they do this on two different routes: the ‘natural route’ which includes experiments with garlic, algae, and (i think) fungi, and the ‘synthetic route’ which was not much further explained. It made me wonder whether they could just try to talk to them and ask them to do something else rather than rendering them speechless. But then the bacteria might tell them to shut up anyway…

Postscript 17 November 2010:

Just read about a product that explictly makes use of the properties of quorum sensing: BacillaFilla. It was developed in the UK to heal cracks in aging concrete. To quote from the PopSci article:

“…custom-designed a bacteria to burrow deep into the cracks in concrete where they produce a mix of calcium carbonate and a special bacteria glue that hardens to the same strength of the surrounding concreate… The researchers have tweaked it’s genetic properties such that it only begins to germinate when it comes in contact with the highly-specific pH of concrete. Once the cells germinate, they are programmed to crawl as deep as they can into cracks in the concrete, where quorum sensing lets them know when enough bacteria have accumulated.”

This is also the point where the bacteria start to generate the ‘concrete glue’.


4 thoughts on “Revelation of the Week: ‘Bacteria Speak Molecular Esperanto’

  1. Like the Esperanto of the macroscale, its microbial version is a very successful form of communication between bacteria.

  2. I think Esperanto could be a successful form of communication if you could get more people to use it.

  3. Interesting question. Haven’t you just given it so much attention that you needed to comment on it? Somehow, the mentioning of Esperanto never fails to provoke a reaction. In this case I was just being cheeky.

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