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Bacteria as logic boxes, decision making switches may hold key to combat drug resistance

Society For General Microbiology : 14 June, 2006  (New Product)
Bacteria are very capable of making decisions that require juggling various aspects of life, according to research presented at the Society for General Microbiology's 157th Meeting at Keele University, UK.
'All life forms need to behave appropriately,' says Dr Dave Whitworth from the University of Warwick. 'Even bacteria need to respond to changes in their environment, for instance if they are starved, they can convert themselves into dormant cells called spores. This means they need switches inside their cells to control the way they behave.'

When an animal, or microbe, has cells with multiple switches inside, as they often do, then researchers can easily understand the way behaviour is controlled if the switches operate independently. Unfortunately life isn't that simple, and decision-making pathways are often affected by the behaviour of other switches within a cell, so the decision-making mechanism can be extremely complex.

'This means the cells, or bacteria, can make very sophisticated decisions, and display quite a range of behaviours,' says Dr Whitworth. 'However the good news is that the type of decision-making switches or signalling pathways we have been studying, called two-component systems, are found in many different types of bacteria, but not in animals, including humans.'

'Two-component switches are used by the bacteria to alter how dangerous they are, and are also important in drug resistance such as vancomycin resistance, currently one of our last lines of defence. This makes these switches and pathways a prime target for producing new, more efficient drugs which will only stop disease-causing bacteria, and not harm people,' says Dr Whitworth.

If the scientists can identify some general principles of signalling networks and decision-making switches they will be able start answering many questions including how new bacteria behaviours evolve and how new pathways such as those conferring drug resistance are incorporated into existing signalling networks.

Eventually this work could lead to applications in other fields such as a better understanding of cancers, which are caused by the breakdown of signalling networks in humans, and industrial applications of bacteria to help in chemical processing, antibiotic production, computing or bionanotechnology.
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