How do Bacteria Communicate?

Arnoud van den Heuvel
April 15th 2009

So here we are; bragging about our discoveries and great new ways of living... meanwhile we tend to forget that we are NOT the dominant species on the surface of the earth. Reality check!

According to Bonny Bassler, bacteria live a boring life. They grow and divide, grow and divide, grow and divide. Yet they manage to cover us in an invisible body armor protecting us from environmental influences. They work together with our body by digesting our food, producing vitamins and educate our immune system to keep bad virusses and microbes out. Without bacteria we simply wouldn't be able to survive.

In this light, human bodies can be seen as incredible garden–spaceships to the smallest living organisms on earth. This would imply that bacteria populations found ways to communicate and organize themselves to pursue certain objectives. If only we could know what they have in mind for us and learn to speak their language...

In this TED-talk Bonnie Bassler gives an inspiring introduction to the chemical language spoken by our tiny symbiotic dominators (click to view). Image credit: Takho Lau / Sharp

Share your thoughts and join the technology debate!public: 1


Arnoud van den Heuvel
Posted 17/04/2009 – 18:38

@ AJ: With bacteria am not too sure that there's no intention to communicate. I am not saying they have free will or anything, but they are a lifeform that is able to duplicate itself in order to survive. So if it's quantity they want, they must also have a way of measuring it. Your explanation is a matter of definition; methaphors versus measurable data. Culture versus nature. Sign language is a language too and one could say a thousand words with one facial expression. Even dogs gossip by means of their droppings. So if bacteria are emitting this enzime / molecule Bonny Bassler is referring to, then for bacteria - In absense of mouths and ears - one could refer to that as 'speaking'. Because they have receptors for this enzime too, we could refer to that as 'listening'. What matters is, that the interbacterial exchange is a proven case and that it results in (behavioural) change. That is impossible without some kind of communication. Further I would like to be open for the idea that a language can consist of only one or two words: 0 or 1 / Yes or No / Push or Pull

Posted 17/04/2009 – 06:51

Hm, I'd think this is more of an emergent behavior than a language. Even as a layperson, 'language' seems to be a misleading analogy- it infers 'speaking' and 'listening', where there is really only 'listening' (to extend the metaphor). Kind of like a tracker 'reading' an animal's footprints. There's no intention to communicate.

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