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New UT Knoxville research finds new ways to understand bacteria's 'thinking'
Date:1/14/2010

KNOXVILLE -- It's not thinking in the way humans, dogs or even birds think, but new findings from researchers at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, show that bacteria are more capable of complex decision-making than previously known.

The discovery sets a landmark in research to understand the way bacteria are able to respond and adapt to changes in their environment, a trait shared by nearly all living things, and it could lead to innovations in fields from medicine to agriculture.

In the long-term, the researchers think that scientists will be able to take the findings, published online this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and use them to tailor medicines in new ways to fight harmful bacteria or to find enhanced ways to use bacteria in agricultural or other applications.

Biology typically looks at the common bacteria Escherichia coli as the model for bacteria's ability to move actively and independently, but Gladys Alexandre, an associate professor of biochemistry, cellular and molecular biology at UT Knoxville, decided to look at the more complex soil bacterium, Azospirillum brasilense.

"As bacteria's ability to make decisions goes, E. coli is kind of dumb, which makes it easy for researchers to study sensing and information processing -- essentially, decision making -- in this bacterium," says Alexandre.

It helps to understand the way that bacteria "think". Their cells contain a number of receptors, and each one affects a certain behavior or trait in the bacteria, for example where to move, how to function, even whether to become virulent. The advent of genetic sequencing means we know more about how many receptors bacteria have, and the more receptors, the more ways a bacterium has to sense its surroundings.

E. coli has only five receptors that direct its decision-making process about movement, while Azospirillum brasilense has 48, making it comparatively much "sm
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Contact: Jay Mayfield
jay.mayfield@tennessee.edu
865-974-9409
University of Tennessee at Knoxville
Source:Eurekalert

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