Can Bacteria Communicate?

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By Andrew Palmer, associate professor of biological sciences

There are at least as many bacterial cells living on/in your body as your own cells. The same is true for other animals and plants. These bacterial populations are diverse, always changing and crucial to the health and well-being of their hosts: us.

You’ve probably heard of this population referred to as the “microbiome” and haven’t given it much thought. On the other hand, there are scientists, like me, who can’t stop thinking about the microbiome: how it changes, how it can keep us healthy, how it can make us sick—or how it can teach us to be better listeners.

One of the biggest lessons from the study of this microbial world is that bacteria are far more social than we thought 30 years ago. For example, in my lab, we study a phenomenon known as “quorum sensing,” through which bacteria release little chemical signals into the environment. Each of these signals is like a vote to change the status quo, and when enough of these bacteria “show up to the polls,” that’s exactly what they do.

These changes can be dramatic, beautiful, beneficial or even lethal. In the case of some marine animals, the bacteria that colonize them reach these quorums around dusk and become bioluminescent, causing their hosts to glow. To potential predators, these glowing organisms look like reflected moonlight rather than food, giving the bacteria a safe home for the night, which equates to several generations in bacterial terms.

In a less pleasant example, some of the bacteria that frequently colonize our lungs can suddenly turn virulent, producing enzymes that dissolve connective tissue and can be fatal to those with compromised immune systems.

Determining the conditions that drive bacteria to change their behaviors and how we can control them are of critical importance to human health, agriculture and several other aspects of society. In my lab, we focus on understanding how hosts eavesdrop on these signals, “reading exit polls” and making their own decisions in response to the trends they see in the bacteria.

Yet to me, there is a bigger message here. In my lab, we always come back to the environment in which these signaling events occur. It turns out that understanding the background is just as important as understanding the signal itself. The environment modifies the signal, the producer and the listener.

A few years ago, I realized that this same idea was true for the relationships and interactions of my own life. I’ve learned to try to figure out the intent of the message and not just the message itself. Whether you call it mindfulness, active listening or empathy, it is rooted in the idea that communication is more than what is said. It is also the intent and the context in which it was said.

When dealing with students, this could be as simple as realizing that the question “Is there anything I can do to get a better grade?” could just be a proxy—a manifestation of desperation that is easier to express than harder questions about their academic ability, how they study or, perhaps, even their career goals. Now, I know to dig a little deeper to help them reflect on their own progress and goals

Outside of the classroom, I’ve taken these lessons into managing my lab and even trying to understand my children and the motivations behind their often random-seeming questions.

As we start a new year, I encourage you to spend a little more time listening to the people around you and thinking about where they are coming from. Maybe even take a little time to listen to yourself and think about the words you use, why you use them and what you are really feeling.

Finally, never forget that some of our best life lessons can come from the most unexpected places, like a petri dish.

About The Author
Andrew Palmer is an associate professor of biological sciences, jointly appointed between the department of ocean engineering and marine sciences and the department of biomedical and chemical engineering and sciences. He studies microbial signaling, plant growth and development, environmental toxicology and the development of food production systems for future off-world missions.\


This article was originally featured as “One Big Question” in the 2019 Winter Edition of Florida Tech Magazine. Click below to read the full magazine.

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