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July 2010, Week 3

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Mon, 19 Jul 2010 00:20:41 -0400
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Listening to Bacteria
By studying microbial communications, Bonnie Bassler
has come up with new ways to treat disease
By Natalie Angier
Smithsonian magazine
August 2010
http://www.smithsonianmag.com/specialsections/40th-anniversary/Listening-to-Bacteria.html

Bassler's foray into microbial idioms is of more than
academic interest. The work may well have an impact on
what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
calls one of the "most pressing public health problems"
in the world today: antibiotic resistance. In recent
years, the overuse of drugs like penicillin to treat
childhood earaches, or to inoculate livestock crowded
together on factory farms, has spawned the appearance of
"superbugs," bacterial strains able to shrug off
virtually any of the conventional antibiotics lobbed at
them.

Bassler and her peers are guardedly optimistic that
their insights into the circuitry of quorum sensing will
eventually yield a new, safer generation of antibiotics.
Rather than seeking to kill bacteria outright, as
current antibiotics do-an approach that readily leads to
drug resistance-the novel therapeutics would simply
muzzle the molecular messages that induce bacteria to
cause disease. Bassler explains the difference between
the two approaches this way: "Let's say I'm a bacterium,
and you're hitting me with a drug like penicillin that
pops the bacterial membrane, but I happen to have a
mutation that makes me impervious to that popping
effect," she says. "No question about it, I'll have an
immediate growth advantage."

But let's say you are instead using an anti-quorum-
sensing drug designed to inhibit bacterial
communication, she continues, "and I'm a bacterium with
a mutation that makes me immune to the blocker." Great:
I'm a microbe that's trying to get in touch with my
friends, but because of the blocker, nobody around me is
listening. If virulence depends on effective bacterial
communication, she says, my lone little mutation will
give me no growth advantage at all: "What good does it
do me?"

[moderator: to read the entire article please click on
the link below:
http://www.smithsonianmag.com/specialsections/40th-anniversary/Listening-to-Bacteria.html]

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