It’s weird but not surprising that some bacteria talk to one another in a process known as quorum sensing (QS). Life forms have evolved special adaptations to stay alive. Long ago, people, birds, and fish discovered safety in numbers and the value of communication.
So have microbes.
For humans, this has become a double-edged sword. We want beneficial bacteria, especially in our gut, to flourish. Good bacteria help with digestion, weight loss, and supplying essential elements. We encourage them through probiotics, fermented foods, and better stress/sleep management. The same cannot be said for pathogenic bacteria, which exist to destroy us. And it appears they are becoming increasingly adept at this through antibiotic resistance and the production of biofilms, a gooey protective shield where bacterial colonies can hide and “discuss” strategies.
What Do These Bad Boys Talk About?
Of course, bacteria aren’t really talking as in Spanish or French, but researchers believe quorum sensing takes place through a kind of chemical communication. Bacterial activity involving quorum sensing was first observed in the mid-1960s by Hungarian-born microbiologist Alexander Tomasz. Yet, scientists are only beginning now to understand the usefulness of quorum sensing, which allows pathogenic bacteria populations to develop more quickly, gain access to more resources, and infect host organisms such as humans more effectively, leading to deadlier diseases.
So what exactly are these yakkers saying?
Quorum sensing, says Dr. Amesh Adalja, a board-certified infectious disease physician at the University of Pittsburgh, gives bacteria “situational awareness to alter behavior,” which helps them “grow” and “flourish.”
“Similar to ringing a tower bell or receiving an Amber Alert, this communication informs bacteria of what actions to take based on what’s going on,” says Brandon Mentore, a nationally recognized sports nutritionist and strength and conditioning coach. “These actions may be defensive in nature or opportunistic depending on the population and type of bacterial species you have.”
Douglas Toal, a Ph.D. board-certified clinical microbiologist adds that the main point of quorum sensing is to allow bacteria the ability to gain “an advantage within their environment” by sensing other like microbes then communicating with them.
Toal uses this example:
At low population density, some pathogens may keep a low profile inside their protective biofilms until their population numbers build up. In other words, they don’t cause problems when their numbers are low and vulnerable to being wiped out by medications. They essentially inform each other to wait until their cell colony is substantially larger before breaking off and infecting new tissue.
Researchers believe bacteria also recruit similar pathogens in the area into their biofilm via chemical messages. Multiple studies have shown that if a bacterium can sense that it is surrounded by a dense population of other pathogens, it is more inclined to join them and contribute to the formation of a biofilm. Bacteria that engage in quorum sensing communicate their presence by emitting chemical memos that their fellow infectious agents are able to recognize. When the messages grow strong enough, the bacteria respond en masse, behaving as a group.
They Also Discuss Their Competition
Like territorial animals of prey, bad bacteria also use quorum sensing to locate then wipe out their bacterial competition.
“Quorum sensing is used both as a signal to form biofilms as well as to disrupt other biofilms,” says Dave Westenberg, associate professor in biological sciences and biochemical engineering at the Missouri University of Science and Technology.
All the bacteria inside you would fill a half-gallon jug.
Bacteria have evolved to compete for nutrients (everything from sugar and starch to sulfur and iron) to survive and propagate, according to Toal.
“They do this by producing antimicrobial compounds (similar to antibiotics) that limit or restrict the growth of microorganisms that are competing for the same nutrients,” Toal says.
Incredibly, it’s possible that while doctors are trying to kill pathogenic bacteria with antibiotics, those same pathogenic bacteria are trying to kill good bacteria with their own form of antibiotics.
Quorum Sensing: A Closer Look At Microbe Chit Chat
According to breakthrough research at Princeton University’s Bassler Lab, quorum sensing involves the production, release, and subsequent detection of chemical signaling molecules called autoinducers. This process enables populations of bacteria to regulate gene expression (expressed characteristics of an organism), and therefore behavior, on a community wide scale.
Lab leader, microbiologist Dr. Bonnie Bassler, believes these autoinducer molecules are either passively released or actively secreted outside of the cells.
“We generically understood that bacteria talk to each other with quorum sensing, but we didn’t know the specific chemical words that they used,” Bassler said.
According to Bassler, as the number of bacteria cells increase, the concentration of autoinducer molecules also increase outside the cells; something akin to pheromones, where they are used to communicate a particular direction for others to follow. When the autoinducers are plentiful enough for other bacteria to detect, cognate receptors bind the autoinducers and trigger responses that result in changes to the biofilm, such as neighboring bacteria joining the community.
Dr. Bonnie Bassler explains how bacteria talk:
Can Their Conversations Be Used Against Them?
The world is finally realizing that antibiotics are no longer the magic bullets they were once thought to be.
“When humans began to mass-produce antibiotics, we artificially amplified the presence of antimicrobial agents within the body,” Toal says. “It only takes a single mutation in a single bacterium to produce an organism that is resistant to antibiotics. Many pathogens such as E. coli can create a new generation every 20 minutes, and so, through natural selection and short generational cycles, bacteria develop resistance to antibiotics.”
Science is looking at new ways to weaken harmful microbes. One possibility is using quorum sensing inhibitors (QSIs), which the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) calls an “attractive alternative for controlling human, animal, and plant pathogens.”
The idea goes something like this:
Kill the messenger. If neighboring bacteria never get the chemical email (autoinducers) to join together to form a stronger biofilm community, the original pathogen becomes more vulnerable to treatments. While mostly still in the research phase, microbiologists have isolated specific enzymes of certain bacteria responsible for producing the signaling molecule that permits cell to cell communication. Now researchers are trying to figure out what quorum quenching enzyme or counter bacteria can be used to interfere with the signal.
Getting Creative With Natural Weapons
Alternative therapies are also being explored. While they may not be able to block cell to cell communication, they may be effective at biofilm penetration, which essentially has the same effect. The most commonly used alternative therapies fall into these categories:
Dr. Abby Kramer, a holistic practitioner and chiropractor in Glenview, Illinois, likes colloidal silver, which is often referred to as a natural antibiotic. Colloidal silver has at least 51 researched benefits including anti-inflammatory properties, boosting the immune system, promoting gut health, preventing biofilm plaque buildup, killing staph infections including MRSA, wiping out ear infections, and helping treat Lyme disease. The other option is chelated silver, which helps to bind the silver molecule to the infected area 200 times stronger.
Probiotics are microorganisms introduced into the body for their beneficial qualities. Studies have shown that when people take probiotics (supplements containing the good bacteria), their anxiety levels, perception of stress, and mental outlook improve, compared with people who did not take probiotics.
Another tactic is probiotic foods such as traditionally cultured vegetables. If the good bacteria have a food supply, they last longer in the digestive tract and hopefully will repopulate the gut.
High dose enzymes can be very effective at breaking down the biofilm layer. InterFase, for example contains enzymes designed to eat through the biofilm so bad bacteria have to compete with beneficial bacteria for nutrients. Nattokinase and Serrapeptase are potent oral fibrinolytic enzyme supplements and reputed biofilm reducers. Proteolytic enzymes that breakdown proteins that contribute to inflammation and mucus such as Serrapeptase can also have an effect.
Time Running Out?
In 2013 the Global Burden Of Disease Study, a massive investigation on the propagation of chronic disease, revealed for the first time that up to 95 percent of the population is sick from a spectrum of chronic conditions. Biofilm-producing pathogenic bacteria are everywhere, from insect vectors like ticks and mosquitoes to contaminated food. There is also a moronic convergence of many other factors prevalent in Western culture — poor nutrition, processed foods, over consumption of sugar, environmental, and biochemical stressors such as insecticides and herbicides.
We now realize that antibiotics were never miracle drugs. They were more akin to miracle Band-Aids. Pathogenic bacteria have caught up to our technology. The challenge now is to catch up to theirs.
Researchers need to listen carefully.
Thomas Ropp Longtime journalist Thomas Ropp is an environmental advocate and proponent of living healthier. After spending most of his life in Arizona, he relocated to a Costa Rican rainforest ten years ago and helped with reforestation projects to expand the habitat of the endangered mono titi monkey. He has dual residency in the United States and Costa Rica.
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