Posting from TED: Bacteria May Be The World's Best "Risk" Players

Feb 9, 2009, 12:24 AM, Posted by Paul Tarini

According to Dr. Bonnie Bassler’s TED presentation on Friday, bacteria operate inside your body in way that’s similar to the game of RiskBassler’s a molecular biologist at Princeton and she studies the way bacteria communicate with each other.  She said they’ve found that bacteria send out a simple chemical signal that can only be read by bacteria of the same type.  When there’s enough bacteria sending enough like-minded signals, the bacteria launch an attack (technically, it exercises a specific behavior it’s genetically programmed to exercise…in some cases that could be good for the host, in others, such as with MRSA, it could be really bad).  This communication is called quorum sensing.

It’s more complicated and more elegant, though.  Bacteria have a second simple chemical signal they send out.  This one can be read by all bacteria.  It tells a particular type of bacteria what other types of bacteria are in the host and how much of it is there.  Too much of bacteria Y, and bacteria X won’t launch its attack/exercise its behavior.

In Risk, it was always one thing to get control of Australia and another to gain enough reinforcements to successfully attack another piece of territory.  And the question of whether to attack was always informed by the size of your opponent’s army.

Bassler’s work is more than just a game.  It suggests a new approach to dealing with bacterial infections, one that involves interfering with the communication mechanism of the bacteria.  This may open up whole new avenues for pharma companies working to fight infections in this age of intensified antibiotic resistance.  In a related vein, policy changes that could facilitate the development of new antibiotics were outlined in the report "Extending the Cure: Policy research to extend antibiotic effectiveness," produced under a grant led by Ramanan Laxminaryan

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF Pioneering Ideas blog.