AUSTIN, Texas — Scientists have discovered that bacteria can create something like memories about when to form strategies that can cause dangerous infections in people, such as resistance to antibiotics and bacterial swarms when millions of bacteria come together on a single surface. The discovery — which has potential applications for preventing and combatting bacterial infections and addressing antibiotic-resistant bacteria — relates to a common chemical element bacterial cells can use to form and pass along these memories to their progeny over later generations.
Researchers at The University of Texas at Austin found that E. coli bacteria use iron levels as a way to store information about different behaviors that can then be activated in response to certain stimuli.
Scientists had previously observed that bacteria that had a prior experience of swarming (moving on a surface as a collective using flagella) improve subsequent swarming performance. The UT-led research team set out to learn why. Bacteria don’t have neurons, synapses or nervous systems, so any memories are not like the ones of blowing out candles at a childhood birthday party. They are more like information stored on a computer.