How Bacteria Talk: Bonnie Bassler (Full Transcript)

And so we think that this is the next generation of antibiotics and it’s going to get us around, at least initially, this big problem of resistance.

So what I hope you think, is that bacteria can talk to each other, they use chemicals as their words, they have an incredibly complicated chemical lexicon that we’re just now starting to learn about.

And of course what that allows bacteria to do is to be multicellular. So in the spirit of TED they’re doing things together because it makes a difference. What happens is that bacteria have these collective behaviors, and they can carry out tasks that they could never accomplish if they simply acted as individuals.

And what I would hope that I could further argue to you is that this is the invention of multicellularity. Bacteria have been on the Earth for billions of years; humans, couple hundred thousand. So we think bacteria made the rules for how multicellular organization works. And we think, by studying bacteria, we’re going to be able to have insight about multicellularity in the human body.

So we know that the principles and the rules, if we can figure them out in these sort of primitive organisms, the hope is that they will be applied to other human diseases and human behaviors as well.

I hope that what you’ve learned is that bacteria can distinguish self from other. By using these two molecules they can say “me” and they can say “you.” Again of course that’s what we do, both in a molecular way, and also in an outward way, but I think about the molecular stuff. This is exactly what happens in your body.

It’s not like your heart cells and your kidney cells get all mixed up every day, and that’s because there’s all of this chemistry going on, these molecules that say who each of these groups of cells is, and what their tasks should be.

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Again, we think that bacteria invented that, and you’ve just evolved a few more bells and whistles, but all of the ideas are in these simple systems that we can study.

And then the final thing is, again just to reiterate that there’s this practical part, and so we’ve made these anti-quorum sensing molecules that are being developed as new kinds of therapeutics. But then, to finish with a plug for all the good and miraculous bacteria that live on the Earth, we’ve also made pro-quorum sensing molecules. So, we’ve targeted those systems to make the molecules work better.

And so remember you have these 10 times or more bacterial cells in you or on you, keeping you healthy. What we’re also trying to do is to beef up the conversation of the bacteria that live as mutualists with you, in the hopes of making you more healthy, making those conversations better, so bacteria can do things that we want them to do better than they would be on their own.

And then finally, I wanted to show you this is my gang at Princeton, New Jersey. Everything I told you about was discovered by someone in that picture. I hope when you learn things, like about how the natural world works — I just want to say that whenever you read something in the newspaper or you get to hear some talk about something ridiculous in the natural world it was done by a child.

So science is done by that demographic. All of those people are between 20 and 30 years old, and they are the engine that drives scientific discovery in this country. It’s a really lucky demographic to work with. I keep getting older and older and they’re always the same age, and it’s just a crazy delightful job.

And I want to thank you for inviting me here. It’s a big treat for me to get to come to this conference.

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