- Number 370 |
- August 27, 2012
Listening to life
A new technique allows scientists to
identify and measure the small molecules
in and around the same living bacterial
Once impossible, scientists can now eavesdrop on microbes, thanks to a new technique from scientists at DOE’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and three universities. Microbes converse by releasing simple and complex molecules, called metabolites. The metabolites interact with and alter their environment and nearby cells. To listen in, the team combined nanospray desorption electrospray ionization mass spectrometry, or nanoDESI, and a new bioinformatics technique. This approach allows scientists to identify and quantify, in time and space, the metabolites around living bacterial colonies.
"This is a real discovery tool—showing us how microbial communities interact," said Dr. Julia Laskin, a PNNL chemist who has been successfully advancing the frontiers of nanoDESI for 3 years.
Understanding the timing and distribution of metabolite exchanges will help interpret and potentially manipulate microbial communities. For example, by studying how Shewanella oneidensis colonies respond to their environment and other strains of bacteria, scientists can gain insights into how the microbe makes mobile uranium stationary. Another example, scientists can determine how brain cells respond to nicotine and other toxins. The new nanoDESI-based technique offers the insights scientists want."Microbial biology covers topics from biofuel production to bioremediation to health to defense," said Dr. Pieter Dorrestein, who led the development of the new bioinformatics technique and is an Associate Professor at the University of California, San Diego. "And, it is all of these different areas of research that the tool may impact—that's why it is so exciting."
[Kristin Manke, 509.372.6011,