Here is the full text of Fatima AlZahra’a Alatraktchi’s talk titled “Hacking into the Secret Communication of Bacteria” at TEDxAarhus conference.
Fatima AlZahra’a Alatraktchi has a PhD in nanophysics and molecular biology. She has developed a tool that can capture and decode bacterial messages and thereby save lives.
Fatima AlZahra’a Alatraktchi – TEDx Talk TRANSCRIPT
You don’t know them. You don’t see them. But they’re always around, whispering, making secret plans, building armies with millions of soldiers. And when they decide to attack, they all attack at the same time.
I’m talking about bacteria.
Who did you think I was talking about?
Bacteria live in communities just like humans. They have families, they talk, and they plan their activities. And just like humans, they trick, deceive, and some might even cheat on each other.
What if I tell you that we can listen to bacterial conversations and translate their confidential information into human language? And what if I tell you that translating bacterial conversations can save lives?
I hold a PhD in nanophysics, and I’ve used nanotechnology to develop a real-time translation tool that can spy on bacterial communities and give us recordings of what bacteria are up to.
Bacteria live everywhere. They’re in the soil, on our furniture and inside our bodies. In fact, 90% of all the live cells in this theater are bacterial. Some bacteria are good for us; they help us digest food or produce antibiotics. And some bacteria are bad for us; they cause diseases and death.
To coordinate all the functions bacteria have, they have to be able to organize, and they do that just like us humans — by communicating.
But instead of using words, they use signaling molecules to communicate with each other. When bacteria are few, the signaling molecules just flow away, like the screams of a man alone in the desert. But when there are many bacteria, the signaling molecules accumulate, and the bacteria start sensing that they’re not alone. They listen to each other.
In this way, they keep track of how many they are and when they’re many enough to initiate a new action. And when the signaling molecules have reached a certain threshold, all the bacteria sense at once that they need to act with the same action. So bacterial conversation consists of an initiative and a reaction, a production of a molecule and the response to it.
In my research, I focus on spying on bacterial communities inside the human body. How does it work? We have a sample from a patient. It could be a blood or spit sample. We shoot electrons into the sample, the electrons will interact with any communication molecules present, and this interaction will give us information on the identity of the bacteria, the type of communication and how much the bacteria are talking.
But what is it like when bacteria communicate?
Before I developed the translation tool, my first assumption was that bacteria would have a primitive language, like infants that haven’t developed words and sentences yet. When they laugh, they’re happy; when they cry, they’re sad. Simple as that.
But bacteria turned out to be nowhere as primitive as I thought they would be. A molecule is not just a molecule. It can mean different things depending on the context, just like the crying of babies can mean different things: sometimes the baby is hungry, sometimes it’s wet, sometimes it’s hurt or afraid. Parents know how to decode those cries.
And to be a real translation tool, it had to be able to decode the signaling molecules and translate them depending on the context. Basically what the translation tool can do is to give us information on what the bacteria are doing right now and what they plan to do next.
Let me give you an example. Now I know we are not all micro-biologists here, but – and I have brought some bacterial data. They can be a bit tricky to understand if you are not trained but try to take a look.
Here’s a happy bacterial family that has infected a patient. Let’s call them the Montague family. They share resources, they reproduce, and they grow. One day, they get a new neighbor, bacterial family Capulet. Everything is fine, as long as they’re working together.
But then something unplanned happens. Romeo from Montague has a relationship with Juliet from Capulet. And yes, they share genetic material.
Now, this gene transfer can be dangerous to the Montagues that have the ambition to be the only family in the patient they have infected, and sharing genes contributes to the Capulets developing resistance to antibiotics. So the Montagues start talking internally to get rid of this other family by releasing this molecule.
And with subtitles: [Let us coordinate an attack.]
Let’s coordinate an attack. And then everybody at once responds by releasing a poison that will kill the other family. [Eliminate!]
The Capulets respond by calling for a counterattack. [Counterattack!]
With this molecule it makes all individual cells synchronized and respond at once. And they have a battle. This is a video of real bacteria dueling with swordlike organelles, where they try to kill each other by literally stabbing and rupturing each other. Whoever’s family wins this battle becomes the dominant bacteria.
And to be the true to the Romeo and Juliet story, sometimes bacteria even commit suicide. But I’ll spare you for that here.
So what I can do is to detect bacterial conversations that lead to different collective behaviors like the fight you just saw. And what I did was to spy on bacterial communities inside the human body in patients at a hospital. I followed 62 patients in an experiment, where I tested the patient samples for one particular infection, without knowing the results of the traditional diagnostic test.