Could Bacteria Communicate by Bouncing Electrons Around Their Chromosomes?

By Veronique Greenwood | April 25, 2011 6:13 pm

e coli

What’s the News: A group of physicists say they’ve found a way to account for the mysterious radio signals that may be emanating from colonies of E. coli—and it’s not because they’re trying to get our attention.

How the Heck:

  • While human chromosomes are long strings of DNA, bacterial chromosomes are loops. Free electrons travel from atom to atom around such a loop, and as they jump down from one discrete energy level to a lower one, they can emit photons, says a group of researchers, in a recent paper on the arXiv.
  • The researchers calculate that the transition frequencies of these jumps would be 0.5, 1, and 1.5 kilohertz, about what was reported in an earlier study. In other words, the radio signals could be a result of the quantum nature of electrons and the structure of bacterial DNA.

What’s the Context:

  • It’s suspected that bacteria use waves of higher frequencies to communicate with each other and perform other functions, but radio signals aren’t usually discussed in this context.
  • Radio signals being emitted by bacterial DNA were first observed during a bizarre episode two years ago in which Luc Montagnier, who won a Nobel in 2008 for his discovery of HIV, self-published a paper that seemed to support the idea of homeopathy and involved teleporting DNA (see New Scientist coverage ($) here).
  • Technology Review’s arXiv blog puts it well:
  • Let’s make one thing clear: this is a controversial area of science. The measurements of bacterial radio waves were published in 2009 by Luc Montagnier, who won the Nobel Prize for medicine in 2008 for the discovery of HIV. However, Montagnier is a controversial figure and it’s fair to say that his claims are not accepted by most mainstream biologists.

    However, one of the criticisms of the work was that there is no known mechanism by which bacteria can generate radio waves. That criticism may now no longer hold.

The Future Holds: A lot more science to back this idea up or disprove it. At the moment, what we have is a theoretical explanation of how the structure of bacterial DNA might make it emit radio signals and some observations by Montagnier that have not been examined in detail. Solid experiments to investigate how bacteria might do this would be very welcome. And once radio signaling has been established, there’s the question of what purpose it serves: What are the bacteria saying? Are they talking to themselves, or others? Or are the signals just the kind of biological flotsam that appears from time to time in evolved creatures—no real purpose, but no threat to reproduction, and hence still hanging around?

Reference: Widon, A. et al. Electromagnetic Signals from Bacterial DNA.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Physics & Math, Uncategorized
  • Tanya McPositron

    If we are truly only 10% us + 90% bacteria and the 90% has a secret language…creepy. I hope the 90% doesn’t have a plan.

  • Bernard VonQuark

    Nice name, Tanya :)

    Radio emissions are a physical phenomenon, not a sign of intelligence or of communication.

    Simply because we use radio signals as a form of communication does not say anything about radio signals themselves, nor whether other life-forms might use them to communicate.

    Bacteria already communicate using a variety of methods; heat, chemicals, approach/avoid behavior, and so forth. Communication for bacteria can be intracellular or extracellular. Communication itself does not mean sentience. It means that information is passing from one point in space and time to something capable of receiving the communication at another point.

    That being said, and with Occam shaving the hell out of either communication or sentience, there is always room for possibility. It is possible that bacteria or bacterial DNA is communicating using radio waves. It is also possible that bacteria are sentient in some manner.

  • Georg

    “”and because electrons have quantized energy, they will be jumping between several discrete energy states.””

    This sentence is most indicative of crackpottery in that text. It is plainly silly.
    There is more nonsense in, but I think one is enough.

  • Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor)

    OK, Georg, perhaps not the best phrasing there, but that doesn’t mean it’s crackpottery. Edited to make it clearer/more accurate. As for whether the science is right—well, that’s another question…

  • http://DiscoverMagazine Templar 7

    I think this is pretty fascinating myself, and quite within the realm of possibility.

  • John Lerch

    I wonder why they forgot to mention that higher animals including humans also have loops, just not in our main DNA. Our mitochondria are also loops.

  • Veronique Greenwood

    @John Lerch, that’s a great point–mito DNA is circular. Presumably the same phenomenon might be possible with human cells, then. I wonder if anyone’s copped a listen?

  • RR

    1)There is a multitude of opportunities of discovering …but do we have the instruments to measure it?
    2)All this can be related to the popular believe of long distance interaction between living beans, is there an opportunity to seriously study this?
    3)If we are only 10%, how are the coordination and communication of all cells?

  • GD

    From the paper, it looks to me like they’re modelling electron motion around a perfectly circular and static DNA loop as if it were a circular wire. How does this still work when basic biochemical processes like transcription, DNA repair and DNA replication are considered? Bacterial chromosomes are pretty dynamic places – they’re densely coated with proteins, melted for transcription, they are continually broken and rejoined during replication and usually accommodate multiple replication forks. Undergraduate texts might show them as “perfect circles” but in real life that’s just not the case. The paper presents no experimental evidence and the Montaigner papers were pretty thin (to be charitable) as well. The math might work, but the basis here is pretty lame…

  • Iain

    So why not set up an experiment whereby a colony of bacteria is partially attacked by some kind of slow working poison or pathogen or something and measure the change in radio activity. Do it many more times using different strength and type of bacti killers etc., etc., etc., eventually there will be a pattern or no pattern and the basic question would be answered, deliberate or not?
    Just out of perversity, save a few bacti from each onslaught and breed them, see if they learn.

  • Juber

    I still believe in the Midichlorians of Star Wars. Now put that in your pipe and smoke it! The implications are enormous! And it’s not as far fetched as spooky action at a distance.

  • Juber

    Look up Endosymbiotic Theory! It is VALID science for those who don’t follow Star Wars symbolism.

  • Peter

    … one bacteria says to other bacteria, right next to him:”Revolution!”

  • Matt

    Did this by any chance appear on April first?

  • Barbara

    I have been studying microbiology for a long time for personal interests. A few years ago, I believed that bacteria were able to communicate with each other in the environment and inside of us. I realize this is in its early stages of learning their secrets but in time I believe that science will learn that our own microbial biota has a direct impact on evolutionary changes over time.

    Afterall, their survival is dependent on the reproduction success of all species too. They do not like unwanted pathogens on their turf anymore than we like getting sick from them.


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