Thursday, April 30, 2009

Did Bacteria Invent Communications?

Communications may be a fundamental principle of life. At least, that’s one of the big ideas I took away from Bonnie Bassler’s TED talk a few months ago.

A brilliant molecular biologist at Princeton University,
Dr. Bassler studies how bacteria use chemical signals to communicate with each another, enabling them to act in concert to mount attacks and coordinate defense.

This behavior — called “quorum sensing,” or bacterial communication — used to be considered a rare phenomenon. Dr. Bassler contends that nearly all bacteria do it and most do it all the time. These tiny single-celled organisms can distinguish between their own and other species, “speaking” one language within their own species and communicating with other bacteria in an interspecies language, like a form of “bacterial Esperanto.”

The pharmaceutical industry is paying careful attention to her work, since Dr. Bassler’s discoveries suggest the possibility of a new generation of antibiotics that work by interfering with the communication among pathogenic (bad) bacteria … especially resistant strains.

I have to confess, however, that as a public relations consultant, what moved me most was the notion that communicating is as natural — and fundamental — as eating, breathing or reproducing. In fact, the impulse to communicate may be hardwired in virtually every living thing.

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