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"Bossing Bacteria" -- The Discovery Files

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Princeton researchers have developed a way to place onto surfaces special coatings that chemically "communicate" with bacteria, telling them what to do. The coatings, which could be useful in inhibiting or promoting bacterial growth as needed, possess this controlling power over bacteria because, in effect, they "speak" the bugs' own language.

Credit: NSF/Karson Productions

Audio Transcript:

(Sound effect: Partially sung) If I could talk to the bacteria

I'm Bob Karson with the Discovery Files, from the National Science Foundation.

A team of Princeton University biologists, chemists and engineers has found a way to boss around bacteria. They've developed chemical coatings that communicate commands to control colonies of the critters.

Microbes release certain biomolecules to communicate and coordinate their group behavior. They signal each other when their colony reaches a certain level of growth. The researchers use these same sorts of biomolecules in their coatings -- manipulating the microbes' own language to dictate behavior. The coatings can prevent growth of harmful bacteria, or encourage growth of beneficial ones.

Using the scourge of hospitals; the pesky staph bacterium, the team tested the technology. They created surfaces studded with chemical molecules known to keep staph from becoming virulent and making toxins. The coatings worked, remaining attached to glass, plastic and metal, even in the presence of plasma from human blood and after five weeks of storage.

The team says coating surfaces in hospitals could leave germs more vulnerable to antibiotics and disinfectants and they see plenty of uses for their coated surfaces in industry and agriculture, too.

Selectively ratcheting up or tamping down bacterial chatter to manage microbes. (Sound effect: squeaky voice) Yes, I speak microbe.

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