The research team found that the spores of soil-dwelling bacteria could sense the presence of so-called muropeptide fragments released from the cell walls of other growing bacteria.
Those muropeptides act as powerful germinants, stimulating the spores to exit the safety of their dormant state and start growing.
The researchers hope that the discovery could lead to a new kind of anti-microbial agent that works by keeping dormant bacteria-which typically resist traditional antibiotics-inactive.
"[From the bacteria's perspective,] dormancy is a great state," said Jonathan Dworkin of Columbia University.
"They are invulnerable to antibiotics. If you keep them in that state, you can't kill them but they don't grow either.
"Antibiotics usually kill bacteria by preventing some essential process, but if an antibiotic instead kept dormant bacteria from emerging, it would be essentially like killing them," he added.
The new study found that muropeptides derived from cultures of growing cells stimulate the germination of dormant Bacillus subtilis spores.
The researchers believe that the new find shows promise for a new type of antibiotic medication that may stand to benefit the food industry.
Bacterial spores are also a significant problem for food preservation, Dworkin said, because they can withstand heat sterilization.
"If the food industry could find ways to control spore germination, that may be just as good as killing them," he said.
The report appears in journal Cell, a Cell Press publication.