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Deep Inside Bacteria, a Germ of Human Personality

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Scientists Hope to Fight Infections by Blocking the Social Creatures' Ability to Sense When They Have Sufficient Numbers to Attack

Bacteria are the oldest living things on earth, and researchers have long felt that they must lead dull, unfussy lives. New discoveries are starting to show just how wrong that notion is.

For a simple, single-cell creature, a bacterium is surprisingly social. It can communicate in two languages. It can tell self from nonself, friend from foe. It thrives in the company of others. It spies on neighbors, spreads misinformation and even commits fratricide.

"Really, they're just stripped-down versions of us," says Bonnie Bassler, microbial geneticist at Princeton University, who has spent two decades peeking at the inner lives of bacteria. Dr. Bassler and other scientists are using this information to devise new ways to fight infections and reduce antibiotic resistance.

Bacterial society is based on a chemical language called quorum sensing. To detect how many of its own species, or members of another bacterial species, are in the immediate vicinity, each bacterium secretes a certain molecule into the environment. The greater the number of molecules it can sense, the more fellow bacteria it knows are out there.
 
 

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