Bacteria Communicate Like Us – and We Could Use This to Help Address Antibiotic Resistance

Like the neurons firing in human brains, bacteria use electricity to communicate and respond to environmental cues. Now, researchers have discovered a way to control this electrical signalling in bacteria, to better understand resistance to antibiotics.

This powerful tool will help advance understanding of bacterial infections – including the global threat of antimicrobial resistance. This is because such electric signalling is involved in antibiotic uptake and leads to some bacteria surviving antibiotic exposure.

In the study published in Advanced Science, scientists at the Universities of Warwick and Politecnico di Milano, report a major step forward in regulating bacterial electric signals with light. The team used a molecule, Ziapin2, which binds to bacteria membranes and changes its structure when exposed to light (a so-called “photoswitch”).

Dr. Munehiro Asally, Associate Professor of the University of Warwick’s Life Sciences department, said: “We found that upon exposure to blue-green light, bacteria showed an electrical pattern known as hyperpolarisation. We showed that Ziapin2 causes special channels to open, causing electrical changes in bacterial cells.

“Though in its early stages, this technique may help us in the future to better understand microbial phenomena, such as cell-to-cell signalling, efficacy of antibiotics, and antimicrobial resistance”, added Dr Tailise de Souza, postdoctoral researcher at the University of Warwick.

Giuseppe Paternò, assistant professor of Physics at Politecnico di Milano University, says: “The introduction of light-methods in bacteria can potentially open up new exciting research routes. Apart from bringing a new tool for antimicrobial resistance studies, this approach can be exploited to build up bacterial hybrids that can perceive light and perform useful tasks, such as drug delivery in hard-to-reach body locations.”

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