Feeling Out Bacteria’s Sense of Touch

Our sense of touch provides us with bits of information about our surroundings that inform the decisions we make. When we touch something, our nervous system transmits signals through nerve endings that feed information to our brain. This enables us to sense the stimulus and take the appropriate action, like drawing back quickly when we touch a hot stovetop.

Bacteria are single cells and lack a nervous system. But like us, they rely on their “sense” of touch to make decisions—or at least change their behavior. For example, bacteria’s sense of touch is believed to trigger the cells to form colonies, called biofilms, on surfaces they make contact with. Bacteria may form biofilms as a way to defend themselves, share limited nutrients, or simply to prevent being washed away in a flowing liquid.

Humans can be harmed by biofilms because these colonies serve as a reservoir of disease-causing cells that are responsible for high rates of human infection. Biofilms can protect at least some cells from being affected by antibiotics. The surviving reservoir of bacteria then have more time to evolve resistance to antibiotics.

At the same time, some biofilms can be valuable; for example, they help to break down waste in water treatment plants and to drive electrical current as part of microbial fuel cells.

Until recently, scientists thought that bacteria formed biofilms and caused infections in response to chemical signals they received from their environments. But research in 2014 showed that the bacterium Pseudomonas aeruginosa could infect a variety of living tissues—from plants to many kinds of animals—simply by making contact with them. In the past year, multiple groups of investigators have learned more about how bacteria sense that they have touched a surface and how that sense translates to changes in their behavior. This understanding could lead to new ways of preventing infections or harmful biofilm formation.

Making Contact

Pili (green) on cells from the bacterium Caulobacter crescentus (orange). Scientists used a fluorescent dye to stain pili so they could watch the structures extend and retract. Credit: Courtney Ellison, Indiana University.

When they first make contact with a surface, bacteria change from free-ranging, swimming cells to stationary ones that secrete a sticky substance, tethering them in one place. To form a biofilm, they begin replicating, creating an organized mass stable enough to resist shaking and to repel potential invaders (see https://biobeat.nigms.nih.gov/2017/01/cool-image-inside-a-biofilm-build-up/).

How do swimming bacteria sense that they have found a potential surface to colonize? Working with the bacterium Caulobacter crescentus, Indiana University Ph.D. student Courtney Ellison and her colleagues, under the direction of professor of biology and NIGMS grantee Yves Brun Exit icon, recently showed that hair-like structures on the cell’s surface, called pili, play a role here. The researchers found that as a bacterial cell swims in a fluid, its pili are constantly stretching out and retracting. When the cell makes contact with a surface, the pili stop moving, start producing a sticky substance and use it to hold onto the surface. Continue reading

Cool Image: Inside a Biofilm Build-up

A growing Vibrio cholerae biofilm.

A growing Vibrio cholerae biofilm. Each slightly curved comma shape represents an individual bacterium from assembled confocal microscopy images. Different colors show each bacterium’s position in the biofilm in relation to the surface on which the film is growing. Credit: Jing Yan, Ph.D., and Bonnie Bassler, Ph.D., Department of Molecular Biology, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ.

Bacteria use many methods to overcome threats in their environment. One of these ways is forming colonies called biofilms on surfaces of objects. Often appearing like the bubble-shaped fortress represented in this image, biofilms enable bacteria to withstand attacks, compete for space and survive fluctuations in nutrient supply. Bacteria aggregated within biofilms inside our bodies, for example, resist antibiotic therapy more effectively than free swimming cells, making infections difficult to treat. On the other hand, biofilms are also useful for making microbial fuel cells and for waste-water treatment. Learning how biofilms work, therefore, could provide essential tools in our ongoing battle against disease-causing agents and in our efforts to harness beneficial bacterial behaviors. Researchers are now using new imaging techniques to watch how biofilms grow, cell by cell, and to identify more effective ways of disrupting or fostering them.

Until now, poor imaging resolution meant that scientists could not see what individual bacteria in the films are up to as the biofilms grow. The issue is that bacteria are tiny, making imaging each cell, as well as the ability to distinguish each cell in the biofilm community, problematic. Continue reading

Cool Video: Watching Bacteria Turn Virulent

Researchers created an apparatus to study quorum sensing, a communication system that allows some bacteria to cause dangerous infections. Their findings suggest that blocking bacterial communication might lead to a new way to combat such infections. Credit: Minyoung Kevin Kim and Bonnie Bassler, Princeton University.

If you’ve ever felt a slimy coating on your teeth, scrubbed grime from around a sink drain or noticed something growing between the tiles of a shower, you’ve encountered a biofilm. Made up of communities of bacteria and other microorganisms, biofilms thrive where they can remain moist and relatively undisturbed. As they enlarge, biofilms can block narrow passages like medical stents, airways, pipes or intestines. Continue reading