Researchers at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville have opined that bacteria are more capable of complex decision-making than previously realized.
With the discovery, researchers have set a landmark to understand the way bacteria are able to respond and adapt to changes in their environment-a trait shared by nearly all living things, and which could lead to innovations in fields from medicine to agriculture.
In the long-term, the researchers think that scientists could use the findings to tailor medicines in new ways to fight harmful bacteria or to find enhanced ways to use bacteria in agricultural or other applications.
Moving away from the common bacteria Escherichia coli as the model for bacteria's ability to move actively and independently, Gladys Alexandre decided to look at the more complex soil bacterium, Azospirillum brasilense.
"As bacteria's ability to make decisions goes, E. coli is kind of dumb, which makes it easy for researchers to study sensing and information processing-essentially, decision making-in this bacterium," said Alexandre.
It helps to understand the way that bacteria "think".
Their cells contain a number of receptors, and each one affects a certain behaviour or trait in the bacteria, for example where to move, how to function, even whether to become virulent.
With the advent of genetic sequencing, we know more about how many receptors bacteria have, and the more receptors, the more ways a bacterium has to sense its surroundings.
E. coli has only five receptors that direct its decision-making process about movement, while Azospirillum brasilense has 48, making it comparatively much "smarter" in its ability to detect changes in its environments and as a result, to make complex decisions regarding where to move.
But, until now scientists have not known and study how the individual receptors, by sensing their environment, directly affect the bacteria's behavior and ability to adapt to their environment.
The study is one of the first to isolate and study a receptor in this way.
Alexandre hopes that other scientists and researchers can use a similar technique to look at receptor sites on other bacteria of interest.
"We see now that bacteria are, in their way, big thinkers, and by knowing how they 'feel' about the environment around them, we can look at new and different ways to work with them," said Alexandre.
The study has been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.