Bonnie Lynn Bassler is an American molecular biologist who revolutionized microbiology with her discovery of the use of chemical communication between bacteria known as quorum sensing, as well as the idea that disruption of chemical signaling can be used as an antimicrobial therapy.
Bonnie Bassler – TED-ED TRANSCRIPT
Bacteria are the oldest living organisms on the earth. They’ve been here for billions of years, and what they are are single-celled microscopic organisms. So they are one cell and they have this special property that they only have one piece of DNA. They have very few genes, and genetic information to encode all of the traits that they carry out.
And the way bacteria make a living is that they consume nutrients from the environment, they grow to twice their size, they cut themselves down in the middle, and one cell becomes two, and so on and so on. They just grow and divide, and grow and divide — so a kind of boring life, except that what I would argue is that you have an amazing interaction with these critters.
I know you guys think of yourself as humans, and this is sort of how I think of you. So this man is supposed to represent a generic human being, and all of the circles in that man are all of the cells that make up your body.
There is about a trillion human cells that make each one of us who we are and able to do all the things that we do, but you have 10 trillion bacterial cells in you or on you at any moment in your life. So, 10 times more bacterial cells than human cells on a human being.
And of course, it’s the DNA that counts, so here’s all the A, T, Gs and Cs that make up your genetic code, and give you all your charming characteristics. So you have about 30,000 genes. Well it turns out you have 100 times more bacterial genes playing a role in you or on you all of your life.
And so at the best, you’re 10% human, but more likely about 1% human, depending on which of these metrics you like. I know you think of yourself as human beings, but I think of you as 90% or 99% bacterial. And these bacteria are not passive riders, these are incredibly important, they keep us alive.
They cover us in an invisible body armor that keeps environmental insults out so that we stay healthy. They digest our food, they make our vitamins, they actually educate your immune system to keep bad microbes out.
So they do all these amazing things that help us and are vital for keeping us alive, and they never get any press for that. But they get a lot of press because they do a lot of terrible things as well.
So, there’s all kinds of bacteria on the Earth that have no business being in you or on you at any time, and if they are, they make you incredibly sick.
And so, the question for my lab is whether you want to think about all the good things that bacteria do, or all the bad things that bacteria do. The question we had is how could they do anything at all? I mean they’re incredibly small, you have to have a microscope to see one. They live this sort of boring life where they grow and divide, and they’ve always been considered to be these asocial reclusive organisms.
And so it seemed to us that they are just too small to have an impact on the environment if they simply act as individuals. And so we wanted to think if there couldn’t be a different way that bacteria live.