Microbes communicate by secreting "signalling" molecules

Even the merest of microbes must be able to talk, to be able to interact with their environment and with others to not just survive, but to thrive.

 
In this photo illustration, the Scripps Institution of Oceanography pier is shown with images generated using imaging mass spectrometry set between piling. One of the molecules identified in metabolic exchange by the study is illustrated along the upper course of the pier.
Barnacles and other marine organisms cling to one of the pier's pilings. Photo courtesy of Garlandcannon/Flickr

This cellular chatter comes in the form of signalling molecules and exchanged metabolites (molecules involved in the process of metabolism or living) that can have effects far larger than the organism itself.

Humans, for example, rely upon thousands of products derived from microbially produced molecules, everything from antibiotics and food supplements to ingredients used in toothpaste and paint.

Remarkably, most of what's known about how microbes communicate with each other is the result of indirect observation and measurements.

There has been no general or informative technique for observing the manifold metabolic exchange and signaling interactions between microbes, their hosts and environments. Until now. In a paper published in the May 5 online issue of the journal Angewandte Chemie, researchers at UC San Diego and Scripps Institution of Oceanography report using a new form of imaging mass spectrometry to dramatically visualize multiplex microbial interactions.

''Being able to better see and understand the metabolic interplay between microbial communities and their surrounding biology means we can better detect and characterise the molecules involved and perhaps discover new and better therapeutic and commercially viable compounds,'' said Pieter C Dorrestein, PhD, associate professor at the UCSD Skaggs School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences and the paper's senior author.