Bacterial electrical communication (Introduction)

by David Turell @, Friday, September 08, 2017, 21:37 (12 days ago)

More than chemical quorum sensing, bacterial colonies use electrical impulses to spread messages:

"The preferred form of community for bacteria seems to be the biofilm. On teeth, on pipes, on rocks and in the ocean, microbes glom together by the billions and build sticky organic superstructures around themselves. In these films, bacteria can divide labor: Exterior cells may fend off threats, while interior cells produce food. And like humans, who have succeeded in large part by cooperating with each other, bacteria thrive in communities.


"Biofilms appear to use electrically charged particles to organize and synchronize activities across large expanses. This electrical exchange has proved so powerful that biofilms even use it to recruit new bacteria from their surroundings, and to negotiate with neighboring biofilms for their mutual well-being.


"Süel knew that bacteria also pump ions across their membranes, and several recent papers had reported spikes of electrical activity in bacteria that at least loosely resembled those found in the brain. Could bacteria also be using the action-potential mechanism to transmit electrical signals? he wondered.

"He and his colleagues treated biofilms in their lab with fluorescent markers that are activated by potassium and sodium ions, and the potassium marker lit up as ions flowed out of starved cells. When the ions reached nearby cells, those cells also released potassium, refreshing the signal. The signal flowed outward in this way until it reached the biofilm’s edge. And in response to the signal, edge cells stopped dividing until the interior cells could get a meal, after which they stopped releasing potassium.


" Like neurons, bacteria apparently use potassium ions to propagate electrical signals, Süel and his colleagues reported in Nature in 2015.


"Despite the parallels to neural activity, Süel emphasizes that biofilms are not just like brains. Neural signals, which rely on fast-acting sodium channels in addition to the potassium channels, can zip along at more than 100 meters per second — a speed that is critical for enabling animals to engage in sophisticated, rapid-motion behaviors such as hunting. The potassium waves in Bacillus spread at the comparatively tortoise-like rate of a few millimeters per hour. “Basically, we’re observing a primitive form of action potential in these biofilms,” Süel said. “From a mathematical perspective they’re both exactly the same. It’s just that one is much faster.”


"The first answer came earlier this year in a Cell paper, in which they showed that Bacillus bacteria seem to use potassium ions to recruit free-swimming cells to the community. Amazingly, the bacteria attracted not only other Bacillus, but also unrelated species. Bacteria, it seems, may have evolved to live not just in monocultures but in diverse communities.

"A few months later, in Science, Süel’s team showed that by exchanging potassium signals, two Bacillus biofilms can “time-share” nutrients. In these experiments, two bacterial communities took turns eating glutamate, enabling the biofilms to consume the limited nutrients more efficiently.


"The difference between quorum sensing and potassium signaling is like the difference between shouting from a mountaintop and making an international phone call.


"The findings form “a very interesting piece of work,” said James Shapiro, a bacterial geneticist at the University of Chicago. Shapiro is not afraid of bold hypotheses: He has argued that bacterial colonies might be capable of a form of cognition. But he approaches analogies between neurons and bacteria with caution. The potassium-mediated behaviors Süel has demonstrated so far are simple enough that they don’t require the type of sophisticated circuitry brains have evolved, Shapiro said. “It’s not clear exactly how much information processing is going on.'”

Comment: Using potassium ions is basic in advanced biology. Not surprising an early form is in bacteria. They are the starting point for evolution. Note Shapiro's comment.

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