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Microbial study reveals sophisticated sensory response
Date:8/1/2011

nse of smell to find food, the microscopic bacteria each a single cell measuring only 2-4 micrometers in length rely on a chemical sensing system to locate nutrients. To characterize this sensory response, Shimizu's group took advantage of a physical phenomenon known as Frster resonance energy transfer (FRET) that allows the monitoring of molecular interactions inside living cells using optical measurements.

Stocker's group conducted experiments using microfluidic devices fluid channels of microscopic dimensions that allow precise control over the physical and chemical environment to characterize changes in the bacteria's chemotaxis. Both types of experiments showed that when the size of the gradients in nutrient abundance was increased or decreased by the same factor as the changes in the background level of nutrients, the bacteria responded identically.

Previous research had characterized the molecular machinery responsible for this microbe's sensory behavior, and how adaptation enhances the ability of bacteria to perform food searches under varied conditions. The new experiments demonstrate that the bacteria achieve this by a precise modulation of perception through sensory adaptation. This study is the first to show that a biological system responds only to the "fold change" in sensory inputs in a changing environment: instead of responding to the absolute magnitude of the chemical concentrations they encounter, they respond to relative changes (or the ratio of the stimulus size to the background level).

"Bacteria encounter a large spectrum of nutrient concentrations," said Stocker. "In the ocean, for example, micromolar and millimolar pulses of nutrients arising from cell deaths or excretions dot an otherwise nanomolar nutrient landscape. A sophisticated rescaling of chemotaxis, such as we found for E. coli, would provide a strong fitness advantage when foraging in these environments."

A novel aspect of the discov
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Contact: Roman Stocker
romans@mit.edu
617-253-3726
Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering
Source:Eurekalert  

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