Researchers Visualize Bacterial Chatter

UCSD researchers used a revolutionary imaging technique called Matrix Assisted Laser Desorption Ionization-Time of Flight mass spectrometry to see how bacteria communicate, allowing them to observe the chemical signals that are exchanged. Before this type of imaging mass spectrometry, which was normally used to determine the properties of chemical structures, there were no tools that could study cell-to-cell communication of microorganisms involving multiple signals.

“Now what we have the capacity to do is to see the communication in a multiplexed fashion,” Pieter Dorrestein, assistant professor at UCSD’s Skaggs School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences, said. “That’s a really distinct and significant advantage over what has been done in the past.”

Deciphering how microorganisms communicate is essential to understanding how their signals can change or influence the behavior of neighboring organisms.

Now that researchers have an imaging technique to observe these signals, they can isolate signaling molecules – which have the ability to inhibit the growth of other organisms – to create antibiotic, antiviral, antifungal or even anticancer drugs.

“A big part in the development of new drugs begins with an observation that an organism makes an activity that inhibits the growth of another organism,” Paul Straight, assistant professor of biochemistry and biophysics at Texas A&M University, said. “We can now see, in the genome of many different bacteria and fungi and other organisms, that they can potentially make compounds that have never been seen before. What we can do now is scan these and screen them in a way that opens up our access to higher diversity of potential therapeutics from any given organism.”

The research collaboration drew on Dorrestein’s knowledge of new technologies in mass spectrometry, Straight’s concentration in microbial interactions and UCSD post-doctoral students Yu-Liang Yang’s and Yuquan Xu’s expertise in the modification of bacterial growth.

Dorrestein’s lab is now studying how different molecules interact ­and if those molecules have potential therapeutic value. This research may allow scientists to translate bacterial language into a database that documents signaling molecules and their functions.

Microbes use molecules like penicillin to communicate with their environment. Bacteria, however, secrete a large number of these molecules instead of just one molecule. Each of the molecules communicates something different.

Due to the study, researchers can now understand what the molecules are communicating, which they have been unable to do in the past.

“We’re excited,” Yang said. “There is a new problem that we can figure out and can ask more questions about.”

The team is beginning to work with biotech companies and agricultural businesses to see if their research can be used to change and improve existing medical products.

“It’s also very rewarding to do this kind of collaborative­ research where two different groups that have two separate types of scientific focus can share their expertise and get science done that way,” Straight said.

Texas A&M University, the National Institutes of Health and the Beckman Foundation, a charitable organization that supports scientific research, funded the project.

Readers can contact Regina Ip at [email protected].

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