Disrupting bacterial communication opens up artifical cell design

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Artificial materials based on simple synthetic polymers can disrupt the way in which bacteria communicate with each other.

New research, published in the journal Nature Chemistry and involving experts from the universities of Newcastle, Nottingham and Birmingham, is expected to further understanding of how to design artificial cells and produce materials that will interact with microorganisms and control their behaviour.

According to Newcastle University, this will open up a range of potential applications including drug discovery and energy production and could improve knowledge on how better to control and exploit bacteria in the future.

Natalio Krasnogor, Professor of Computer Science and Synthetic Biology at Newcastle University and joint lead on the study, said: ‘The computational design of synthetic biological systems is a crucial step in the understanding and optimisation of antimicrobial strategies and this paper illustrates the crucial role that computational techniques play in state-of-the-art synthetic biology.

‘The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) has estimated that healthcare associated infections occur in around 4.1 million patients a year in the EU, and that 37,000 deaths are caused every year as a result of such infections.

‘The rapid diagnostic strategies and the in situ early treatment of bacterial pathogens at very early stages of colonization, which is the ultimate goal of this work, will result in a significant reduction in these deaths.’

Funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) the study was led was led by Prof Krasnogor from Newcastle University and Prof Cameron Alexander from Nottingham University.

As part of their research into the development of artificial cells and programmable bacterial coatings, the team found that polymers that were able to arrange bacteria into clustered communities were encouraging these bacteria to actively communicate with each other.

This communication occurred by quorum sensing (QS), a way in which bacteria signal to each other, and coordinate a response to their environment. Quorum sensing also controls the way in which bacteria release certain types of molecules, such as a defence mechanism or as tools for infection.

This finding is said to open up the possibility of influencing microbial behaviour, such as preventing the release of toxins during the spread of infection or the production of useful molecules which can act as drugs, food source or biofuels.

The researchers used the bioluminescent marine bacterium Vibrio harveyi, as it allows them to track the changes in the bacteria’s behaviour by measuring the pattern and intensity of the natural light produced by the organism.

Building on initial results, the team of pharmacists, microbiologists, chemists and computer scientists were also able to produce computational models predicting and explaining the behaviour of the microbial communities, which were crucial to deduct simple design principles for the programmable interaction of bacteria and polymers.

According to a statement, the research offers new understanding of bacterial community behaviour and will have implications in the design of materials as antimicrobials, for bioprocessing, biocomputation and, more generally, synthetic biology.