Chemical coatings boss around bacteria, in the bugs' own language

Princeton researchers have developed a way to place onto surfaces special coatings that chemically "communicate" with bacteria, telling them what to do. The coatings, which could be useful in inhibiting or promoting bacterial growth as needed, possess this controlling power over bacteria because, in effect, they "speak" the bug's own language.

The new technology, reported May 22 in Nature Microbiology, contain the very same sorts of biomolecules that microbes release naturally for communicating and coordinating group behavior -- a process called quorum sensing.

Hijacking this bacterial language of quorum sensing could open a range of applications, the researchers said. Coating surfaces in hospitals could combat the formation of fortress-like communities of bacteria called biofilms, thereby leaving the germs vulnerable to antibiotics in humans or to disinfectant cleaning products on hospital surfaces or equipment. Alternatively, if the bacteria deliver benefits -- as in wastewater treatment plants or in probiotic production -- then coating the surfaces of industrial equipment could boost the microbes' helpful activities.

"Our research raises the exciting, and now plausible possibility that surfaces decorated with quorum sensing-modulating molecules could have anti-infective or pro-growth properties," said co-lead author Minyoung Kevin Kim, a graduate student in the labs of biology professor Bonnie Bassler and engineering professor Howard Stone, both senior authors of the paper.

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