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Bacteria use iron to store memories about when to form dangerous strategies

Scientists at The University of Texas at Austin have made a groundbreaking discovery regarding bacterial behavior that could have significant implications for preventing and combating bacterial infections, including those involving . The findings, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, highlight a memory-like mechanism in bacteria, specifically E. coli, related to the formation of strategies.

Unlike organisms with nervous systems, bacteria lack neurons and synapses, yet they exhibit a form of memory stored in response to environmental stimuli. The key element in this process is iron, one of the most abundant elements on Earth. Bacterial utilize varying levels of iron to store information about different behaviors, passing this information on to subsequent generations.

Video of bacterial swarm under a microscope. Credit: The University of Texas at Austin

Lead author Souvik Bhattacharyya, a provost early career fellow in the Department of Molecular Biosciences at UT, explains, “Bacteria don't have brains, but they can gather information from their , and if they have encountered that environment frequently, they can store that information and quickly access it later for their benefit.”

The research team observed that bacterial cells with lower iron levels exhibited superior swarming capabilities, while those forming biofilms (dense, sticky mats of bacteria on surfaces) had higher iron levels. Additionally, bacteria with antibiotic tolerance displayed balanced iron levels. Intriguingly, these iron-based memories persisted for at least four generations and vanished by the seventh generation.

Microscopic image of E.coli bacteria. Credit: National Institutes of Health

The study suggests a correlation between iron levels and bacterial behavior. When iron levels are low, bacteria trigger memories to form fast-moving migratory swarms, seeking out iron in the environment. Conversely, high iron levels signal that an environment is suitable for forming biofilms.

“Iron levels are definitely a target for therapeutics because iron is an important factor in virulence,” Bhattacharyya emphasized. “Ultimately, the more we know about bacterial behavior, the easier it is to combat them.”

This research not only unveils a fascinating aspect of bacterial adaptation but also opens doors to potential therapeutic interventions targeting iron levels to combat bacterial infections more effectively, especially those involving antibiotic-resistant strains. The study provides valuable insights into the complex ways bacteria respond to their surroundings, paving the way for advancements in medical strategies.

Source: University of Texas at Austin

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