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"Bac-Trac" -- The Discovery Files

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Bacteria's use of "swim and tumble" maneuvers and chemical secretions helps them move toward food or away from poisons as they encounter obstacles, such as those found in the human gastrointestinal tract. The research, which involved an "obstacle course" of microfluidic chambers to experiment on the bacteria, holds implications for not only biology and medicine, but also robotic search and rescue tactics.

Credit: NSF/Karson Productions

Audio Transcript:


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

Scientists at Carnegie-Mellon, the University of Pittsburgh and the Salk Institute for Biological Studies have launched a whole new sporting event in miniature. Welcome to "Bacterial Ninja Warrior."

(Sound effect: gladiator music) (Sound effect: game host) (Sound effect: crowd cheering) "John, these bacteria are certainly well-conditioned for the challenge traversing the difficult obstacle course to reach the food by swimming, tumbling, and dancing their way over the 10-micrometer high microfluidic chambers, complete with obstacles inside the game masters have not made this an easy course." (Sound effect: crowd cheers).

The tiny obstacle course proved no match for the plucky bacteria. (Sound effect: gastro-intestinal sounds) They're used to navigating places like the complex terrain of the gastro-intestinal tract. With tactics such as the well-known "swim and tumble" or "circular dance" that slows them down a bit but helps re-orient them on the right path. Add to that their ability to swim more and tumble less until they're in the clear. All the while secreting chemicals to signal the others about the obstacles.

Bottom line: Their actions enabled them to get the food almost as fast as if it were a clear path.

New insights on bacterial behavior that helped the researchers understand cell movement, (Sound effect: emergency scene) (Sound effect: 'bot sounds) and that could even be applied to larger applications, such as reducing search time for rescue bots looking for victims in emergencies.

Up next, six strains of bacteria -- one house -- the season premiere of: "Bac Brother."

"The discovery files" covers projects funded by the government's National Science Foundation. Federally sponsored research -- brought to you, by you! Learn more at or on our podcast.

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