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Thinking ahead: Bacteria anticipate coming changes in their environment
Date:6/18/2008

Microbes may be smarter than we think.

A new study by Princeton University researchers shows for the first time that bacteria don't just react to changes in their surroundings -- they anticipate and prepare for them. The findings, reported in the June 6 issue of Science, challenge the prevailing notion that only organisms with complex nervous systems have this ability.

"What we have found is the first evidence that bacteria can use sensed cues from their environment to infer future events," says Saeed Tavazoie, an associate professor in the department of Molecular Biology, who conducted the study along with graduate student Ilias Tagkopoulos and post-doctoral researcher Yir-Chung Liu.

The research team, which included biologists and engineers, used lab experiments to demonstrate this phenomenon in common bacteria. They also turned to computer simulations to explain how a microbe species' internal network of genes and proteins could evolve over time to produce such complex behavior.

"The two lines of investigation came together nicely to show how simple biochemical networks can perform sophisticated computational tasks," says Tavazoie.

In addition to shedding light on deep questions in biology, the findings could have many practical implications. They could help scientists understand how bacteria mutate to develop resistance to antibiotics. They may also help in developing specialized bacteria to perform useful tasks such as cleaning up environmental contamination.

In one part of the study, the researchers studied the behavior of Escherichia coli, the ubiquitous bacterium that travels back and forth between the environment and the gut of warm-blooded vertebrates. They wanted to explain a long-standing question about the bug: How do its genes respond to the temperature and oxygen changes that occur when the bacterium enters the gut? The conventional answer is that it reacts to the change -- after
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Contact: Steven Schultz
sschultz@princeton.edu
609-258-3617
Princeton University, Engineering School
Source:Eurekalert  

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