How do bacteria make decisions? Part 1.

PALM image, chemotaxis, azospirillum brasilense, <span title="ctx_ver=Z39.88-2004&rft_val_fmt=info%3Aofi%2Ffmt%3Akev%3Amtx%3Ajournal&rft_id=info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pbio.1000137&rft.atitle=Self-Organization+of+the+Escherichia+coli+Chemotaxis+Network+Imaged+with+Super-Resolution+Light+Microscopy.&rft.jtitle=PLoS+Biology&rft.volume=7&rft.issue=6&rft.spage=e1000137&;bpr3.tags=Research+%2F+Scholarship">Greenfield D. & et al  (2009). Self-Organization of the Escherichia coli Chemotaxis Network Imaged with Super-Resolution Light Microscopy., <span style="font-style:italic;">PLoS Biology, 7</span> (6) e1000137. DOI: <a rel="author" href="">10.1371/journal.pbio.1000137</a></span>
This beautiful figure shows where different chemotaxis proteins are found within an E. coli cell at stunning resolution. From Greenfield D, McEvoy AL, Shroff H, Crooks GE, Wingreen NS, et al. (2009) Self-Organization of the Escherichia coli Chemotaxis Network Imaged with Super-Resolution Light Microscopy. PLoS Biol 7(6): e1000137. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1000137

Yes. You read the title correctly. Decision making is not limited to animals like humans or birds. Bacteria also make decisions with intricate precision. Imagine being so tiny that you are literally moved by water molecules bumping into you. This is what bacteria encounter perpetually. Now, imagine having no eyes, no ears, no sense of touch, no taste or nose. How would you know what or who was around you? How would you find food now as compared to where you were a short time ago? This is where being able to sense important things like a food source is critical. Bacteria have this on their “mind” all the time. Depending on the size of a bacterium’s genome, these tiny organisms have the ability to sense hundreds to thousands of internal and external signals like carbon sources, nitrogen sources, and pH changes. If these bacteria are motile (able to move around), they can compare how conditions are for them now against how they were a few seconds ago. That’s right, bacteria have a memory albeit short. If conditions are better, they can continue to move in a forward direction. If conditions are worse compared to a few seconds earlier, they can change direction and continue searching for better conditions in their environment to generate energy. But, how do they decide?

I will focus on a lesser known bacterium as my example since I have the most knowledge about it. Azospirillum brasilense is found in the soil around the world and interacts with the roots of cereal plants like corn and wheat. A. brasilense is almost always (except when attached to plant roots) motile and searching for the best niche to provide energy for the cell. This bacterium can “make” its own usable form of nitrogen from nitrogen gas in the air through a process known as nitrogen fixation. This costs the cell a lot of energy so they are searching for nitrogen sources as well as the necessary carbon sources for life. The microscopic world can be cut throat. Having the ability to sense a greater variety of food compounds could mean the difference between being the predominant species in town or being on the fringe.

Back to the question about how these cells decide which direction to travel. One way is through a dedicated group of proteins that regulate how often the cell switches direction. This group of proteins control chemotaxis, the movement of a cell in response to chemicals within their environment. The number of chemotaxis genes varies depending on the complexity of metabolism for a bacterium. The champion at the moment is 129 from Pseudomonas syringae pv. oryzae str. 1_6. The proteins that actually sense the chemical signal are called methyl-accepting chemotaxis proteins (MCPs) or chemoreceptors. Azosprillum brasilense has 48 MCPs within its genome. This does not mean, however, that A. brasilense cells can only sense 48 different chemicals. Most, but not all, of these MCPs don’t interact with the chemicals themselves but sense the changes in the amount of energy the cell has within the environment they reside. If things are good, the MCPs are inactive. However, if energy levels are lower than they were a few seconds before, the MCPs become active and begin the signal to change direction. And these MCPs are VERY sensitive to changes. For example, if the A. brasilense cells are swimming in a liquid medium with 1,000 molecules of sugar, they will detect changes of addition or removal of a few sugar molecules in the medium. Now, move these cells immediately into a medium with 1,000,000,000,0000 sugar molecules and they still will be able to detect removal or addition of a few sugar molecules. This is called adaptation and allows the cells to remain sensitive no matter the concentrations of compounds they encounter.

In Part 2, we will talk about what happens next in the decision making process of bacteria.

<span title=”ctx_ver=Z39.88-2004&rft_val_fmt=info%3Aofi%2Ffmt%3Akev%3Amtx%3Ajournal&rft_id=info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pbio.1000137&rft.atitle=Self-Organization+of+the+Escherichia+coli+Chemotaxis+Network+Imaged+with+Super-Resolution+Light+Microscopy.&rft.jtitle=PLoS+Biology&rft.volume=7&rft.issue=6&rft.spage=e1000137&;bpr3.tags=Research+%2F+Scholarship”>Greenfield D. & et al  (2009). Self-Organization of the Escherichia coli Chemotaxis Network Imaged with Super-Resolution Light Microscopy., <span style=”font-style:italic;”>PLoS Biology, 7</span> (6) e1000137. DOI: <a rel=”author” href=”″>10.1371/journal.pbio.1000137</a></span&gt;


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