When Bugs Talk — Power of Bacteria is in the Communication

Molecular Biology Professor Bonnie Bassler of Princeton University studies bacteria, the way they communicate and how humans can use them to our advantage. She recently received the L’ORÉAL-UNESCO Award in Life Sciences. She was one of five women scientists from around the world to receive the award.

Bassler said bacteria don’t just make people sick. They help keep people alive by making vitamins, digesting food and helping the immune system. Her research looks into how bacteria communicate and accomplish actions as a group that can’t be done individually. Bassler attributes the communication to the evolutionary process.

She said the research could help solve the worldwide problem of drug-resistant bacteria. Since researchers know the bacteria must communicate with each other before performing a task, stopping that communication could stop the microorganisms from making people sick.

“If we could make molecules that interfered with communication, those could become new types of therapeutics,” Bassler said.

She explained that researchers currently have molecules that interfere with bacterial communication in animals such as mice. While Bassler said the tests have been successful, that doesn’t mean cures for humans are right around the corner.

“This is not for people yet,” she said. “There’s a lot of steps to make sure these are safe, to make sure these molecules aren’t potent, to make sure they don’t get into the environment.”

Bassler said the goal of the research is to help humanity. In addition to helping curb deaths from drug-resistant illnesses, she said bacteria may be able to help solve other worldwide problems.

“I think going forward what’s becoming really clear is that the solutions to the world’s biggest problems — health, the environment, making new kinds of politically neutral fuels, energy — that’s all going to come from the microbial world,” Bassler said. “There is a treasure trove out there of taking these invisible critters that no one’s really thought about and actually getting them to work with us.”