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Scientist uncovers secret lives of bacteria

University Of Chicago : 15 December, 2004  (Technical Article)
A University of Chicago professor who upended the scientific world's long-held belief that bacteria are simple, single-celled organisms is challenging convention once again.
Jim Shapiro's latest lab work shows that bacteria organize into groups and communicate in efficient and effective ways. Indeed, bacteria can complete any number of sophisticated projects, including building structures to protect themselves or to disseminate spores.

Such high-level activity is just now dawning on scientists, who are starting to realize that bacterial cells' communications systems act much like computing networks.

'There is a lot of controversy about how powerful the information-processing capabilities are of bacteria, in particular, and of living cells in general,' said Shapiro, a microbiology professor in the university's Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.

'I'm one of the people who believe that bacteria are capable of processing immense amounts of information, adjusting to it, and operating in ways that are quite astute,' he said.

The result might mean terrific leaps for industry, environmental cleanup and computer processing.

'Bio-computing, the way cells figure things out, is extraordinarily efficient,' Shapiro said. 'Living cells are the ultimate just-in-time production facilities.'

Scientists must first understand how bacteria process and control information before they can devise new computing principles that might apply to machines.

Those breakthroughs could be applied to nanotechnology and nano-devices, creating a particularly potent micro level of intelligence.

But it's important to remember that the humble, single-celled bacteria already serve as the master geochemists of the planet, Shapiro said.

After all, they maintain our biosphere, keep oxygen in the atmosphere, replace nitrogen in the soil and keep our waters from turning acidic.

'Bacteria tend to get a bum rap because people think of them as disease organisms,' Shapiro said. 'People forget about the positive and essential things they do for us.'

Indeed, bacteria also play a key role in waste disposal. For example, bacteria work as structured teams during sewage treatment. The teams are made of many different kinds of bacteria, arranged so that they can pass chemicals back and forth as they digest them to extract energy and give off carbon dioxide and water.

Scientists are trying to figure out how they act collectively and what their optimal combinations are, to make cleanups as effective as possible.

'We will devise much better ways of applying micro-organisms to polluted areas and clean them up,' Shapiro said.

Bacteria also cause harmful and costly clogs in industrial processes. They block filters, corrode pipes and create nuisances that, if reversed, could save businesses billions, Shapiro said.

Progress also can be made by studying the chemistry and thermodynamics of bacteria to understand better how they operate so efficiently and how they control the environment around them.

'The two things together, energy efficiency and controlling the environment, are important issues. They tell us we need to pay attention to what bacteria are doing,' Shapiro said.

One result could be figuring out how to minimize the effects of global warming, he said.

'The control of the gas composition of the atmosphere is largely a bacterial process,' Shapiro said. 'If we could figure out how to use bacteria to minimize the effects of greenhouse gases, we'd be making tremendous progress.'
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