Reporting the work here today (March 13) at the 229th national meeting of the American Chemical Society, University of Wisconsin-Madison chemistry professor Helen Blackwell described the ongoing construction of a new class of molecules that conduct such chemical warfare.
Targeting natural signaling mechanisms in bacterial cells, Blackwell aims to ultimately control the formation of biofilms, goo-like amalgamations of bacteria that are widespread in nature and have serious implications for agriculture and human health. Biofilms form the green slime on rocks, the plaque on human teeth and the slippery film on ship hulls. If a single cell were analogous to one man, biofilms would be the "bacterial equivalent of mob mentality," says Blackwell.
In the realm of health, biofilms are at the root of growing numbers of tenacious, and sometimes fatal, hospital infections, says Blackwell. Indeed, a U.S. National Institutes of Health study last year reported that almost 80 percent of bacterial infections are in the biofilm forma.
Biofilms can often constitute several species of bacteria and can be both harmful and beneficial. In one role, biofilms can coat plant roots and symbiotically aid ecological processes such as nitrogen fixation. But at the darker end of the scale, biofilms can form infection-inducing layers on implanted medical devices and cause deadly lung infections in cystic fibrosis patients. Biofilms have long baffled researchers because of their stupefying capacity to behave like a "super-organism" that vetoes the normal characteristics of a bacterial cell in favor of new group behaviors. "It's amazing that such simple organisms as bacteria can form these super-colonies that work together in such sophisticated ways," says Blackwell.'"/>