What’s the News: Adding sugar to certain antibiotics can boost their bacteria-battling ability, according to a study published today in Nature. In particular, sugar helps the drugs wipe out persisters, bacteria that evade antibiotics by essentially going dormant only to flare up again once the danger has passed. This technique could lead to the development of inexpensive, more effective treatments for bacterial infections.
We knew that bacteria could stink, but new research asks if bacteria can smell. A study published today argues that Bacillus licheniformis found in soil can sense ammonia given off by neighboring bacteria. Though we might turn our noses when we smell the gases given off by neighbors, the bacteria respond to ammonia by building a thick biofilm coating.
The research appears today in Biotechnology Journal. Previous studies have shown that bacteria can sense gases such as oxygen, but this is the first study to argue that bacteria can smell, since ammonia has a scent. Lead author Reindert Nijland explains that bacteria break the pungent gas down for its useful nitrogen, so an ammonia-detector and biofilm response might be a useful survival tool. He even suggests that this might be the earliest example of olfaction in evolutionary history.
“Ammonia is the simplest available nitrogen source,” Nijland said. “All organisms need nitrogen to produce their proteins.” The ammonia is thought to signal both the presence of nutrients and the presence of other bacteria, since the biofilms Bacillus species produce in response to ammonia contain antibiotics that can kill competing bacteria. And the ability to “smell” ammonia “gives bacteria a way to sense nutrients where nutrients are and then migrate towards them,” he said. [The Scientist]