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Bacteria form ‘memories’ and pass them on to future generations

A very intriguing study has unveiled a new aspect of bacterial behavior, revealing that bacteria possess the ability to create “memories” that influence their strategies, including resistance to antibiotics and the formation of bacterial swarms.

This discovery opens new pathways for combating dangerous infections and addressing the growing concern of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Nature of bacteria memories

Contrary to what one might expect, bacteria memories are not akin to human experiences, such as recalling a childhood birthday party. Instead, they are more comparable to information storage in computers.

Researchers at The University of Texas at Austin have found that E. coli bacteria use iron levels as a mechanism to store information about their environment and behaviors. This information can then be activated in response to specific stimuli and passed down to subsequent generations.

Iron: The key element

“Iron, one of the most abundant elements on Earth, plays a crucial role in this process,” explained Souvik Bhattacharyya, the lead author and a provost early career fellow in the Department of Molecular Biosciences at UT. He noted that variations in iron levels within bacterial cells correlate with different bacterial behaviors.

For instance, bacteria with lower iron levels exhibited enhanced swarming abilities, while those forming biofilms — dense, sticky mats on surfaces — showed higher iron levels. Interestingly, these “iron memories” persist for up to four generations and fade by the seventh.

Applications for bacteria memories

This discovery is not just a mere scientific curiosity but has significant implications for medical and environmental applications.

“Iron levels are definitely a target for therapeutics because iron is an important factor in virulence,” said Bhattacharyya.

Understanding and manipulating these iron-based bacteria memories could lead to innovative strategies to prevent and combat bacterial infections, especially those involving antibiotic-resistant strains.

Iron in bacterial behavior

Reflecting on the evolutionary context, Bhattacharyya remarked, “Before there was oxygen in the Earth’s atmosphere, early cellular life was utilizing iron for a lot of cellular processes. Iron is not only critical in the origin of life on Earth, but also in the evolution of life.”

This deep connection between iron and life forms highlights the fundamental nature of this discovery in understanding both bacterial behavior and the broader context of life on Earth.

In summary, the University of Texas at Austin’s research marks a significant advancement in our understanding of bacterial behavior and opens up new avenues for addressing some of the most pressing health challenges of our time.

By unraveling the mysteries of bacteria memories and their relationship with iron, scientists pave the way for novel approaches in the fight against bacterial infections and antibiotic resistance.

The findings are published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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