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Biological Chemistry

Lone Bacterium Forms A Quorum

Confined to a microfluidic droplet, a single microbe can be fooled into sending out chemical signals to initiate quorum-sensing behavior

by Sarah Everts
July 13, 2009 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 87, Issue 28

Bacteria like to hole up in biofilms, a process that is mediated by chemical signals produced and detected by these microbes. These so-called quorum-sensing signals also help bacteria coordinate, with millions of their neighbors, the onset of everything from infection to bioluminescence. Now, researchers are reporting that small numbers of bacteria sent to the solitary confinement of a microfluidic droplet can be fooled into initiating quorum-sensing behavior (Angew. Chem. Int. Ed., DOI: 10.1002/anie.200901550). The approach could be used to study quorum sensing in bacteria that generally don't like to grow in a lab setting, notes Rustem F. Ismagilov of the University of Chicago, who led the study. The researchers developed a technique that can isolate one to three bacteria in a small droplet. The tight quarters quicken the accumulation of chemical beacons that bacteria release continuously. Quorum-sensing behavior is activated when these beacons are in high concentration, which often happens when bacteria are in large groups. In this case, quorum sensing occurs even with a lone microbe, because the droplet's small volume hastens the chemical beacon buildup from that single bacterium.


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