Slowing dangerous bacteria may be more effective than killing them

Researchers at the University of Illinois have discovered a mechanism that allows bacteria of the same species to communicate when their survival is threatened. The study suggests it may be possible to slow dangerous infections by manipulating the messages these microbes send to each other, allowing the body to defeat an infection without causing the bacteria to develop resistance to the treatment.

The study, reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, builds on work conducted by other researchers at Illinois, including biochemist John Woodland Hastings, who died in 2014, and John Cronan, a professor and the head of the department of microbiology.

"Bacteria are intelligent little organisms. They can survive almost anywhere and quickly adapt to new conditions," said U. of I. biochemistry professor Satish Nair, a co-author of the study with postdoctoral researcher Shi-Hui Dong and other colleagues.

When bacteria compete with other microbes for scarce resources, the more successful group will produce a unique molecule -- an antibiotic -- to kill off the other species. When population growth of one group of bacteria outpaces availability of the nutrients it needs to survive, the group produces another unique molecule that tells it to go into a dormant, but more virulent, state and slow growth until more food is available, Nair said.

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