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Polymers disrupt bacterial communication


Artificial materials based on simple synthetic polymers can disrupt the way in which bacteria communicate with each other, EPSRC-funded research has shown.

The findings, published in the journal Nature Chemistry, could further our knowledge on how better to control and exploit bacteria in the future and will have implications for work in the emerging field of synthetic biology.

Professor Cameron Alexander, from Nottingham University’s School of Pharmacy, who led the study, says: “This is an exciting and unexpected finding for us and comes as a result of research which was very much curiosity driven.

It gives us more information about how to design artificial cells and to produce materials that will interact with micro-organisms and control their behaviour, with a whole host of potential applications including drug discovery and energy production.”

The researchers, who also work at the universities of Birmingham and Newcastle, were investigating the development of artificial cells and programmable bacterial coatings. On the way, they found that polymers- long-chain molecules - that were able to arrange bacteria into clustered communities were, surprisingly, encouraging these bacteria to actively ‘talk’ to each other. This communication occurred by quorum sensing (QS), a way in which bacteria signal to each other, and coordinate response to environment. Quorum sensing also controls the way in which bacteria release certain types of molecules - for example as a defence mechanism or as tools for infection.

This finding opens up the possibility to influence microbial behaviour by controlling their ability to form productive communities. This can be exploited to prevent the release of toxins during the spread of infection or, alternatively, the production of useful molecules which can act as drugs, food source or bio-fuels.

The research was funded by the EPSRC, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and The University of Nottingham.

The paper, Bacteria clustering by polymers induces the expression of quorum sense controlled phenotypes, is available online on the Nature Chemistry website:


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