Bacteria communicate with one another but, since they have neither mouth nor ears, they use chemical signals instead of sounds. They release small molecules into their environment and respond to the molecules of other bacteria. Such molecules are known as “auto-inducers”.
Based on their structure and concentration in the immediate environment, the bacteria are able to determine how many other bacteria are in the neighbourhood. This type of chemical communication is called “quorum sensing”. Auto-inducers typically regulate characteristic bacterial properties, which are much more effective when they are performed by a large number of cells, such as luminescence, the production of antibiotics, the formation of biofilms, or the production of toxins.
Scientists in the group “Microbial Communication” investigate the mechanisms of quorum sensing in Streptococcus mutans, a human pathogen that causes caries, and in Dinoroseobacter shibae, a representative of the Roseobacter Group. They study the functions of genes and proteins using molecular methods that include gene knock-outs, micro-arrays, mRNA sequencing, and heterologous expression of proteins. They have developed new test systems for finding inhibitors of quorum sensing.
A very interesting source of such inhibitors is the Myxobacteria, a group of soil bacteria that form fruiting bodies, which produce a large diversity of novel chemical structures with unknown biological functions. These quorum sensing inhibitors may eventually be used as novel anti-infectives. Such drugs are not required to kill the pathogen; rather they are intended to weaken its capability to make us sick.
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