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Interview: Stephen P. Diggle

World Sci­ence asked lead­ing mi­cro­bi­ol­o­gist Ste­phen P. Dig­gle to com­ment on a study on “back­stab­bing bac­te­ria” re­ported in World Sci­ence and pre­sented Sept. 6 at the fall meet­ing of the So­ci­e­ty for Gen­er­al Mi­cro­bi­ol­o­gy in Not­ting­ham, U.K. Dig­gle, a Roy­al So­ci­e­ty uni­vers­ity re­search fel­low at Not­ting­ham Uni­vers­ity, is one of the sci­en­tists in­volved in the study and is the pro­fes­sor of its lead re­sear­cher, Ph.D. stu­dent Er­ic Pol­litt.

WS: Could you concisely de­scribe how bac­terial cells inter­act so­cially with each oth­er and how an un­der­stand­ing of this can help us to fur­ther under­stand in­fect­ious dis­ease?

D. : In the last 20 years, we have started to appre­ciate that bac­teria are highly inter­active and ex­hibit a num­ber of so­cial be­ha­viours. One key phe­no­me­non found in many spe­cies of bac­teria is “Quo­rum Sens­ing” or QS, which de­scribes the ac­cum­ula­tion of sig­nal mole­cules pro­duced by bac­ter­ial cells [and re­leased in­to] the sur­round­ing en­vi­ron­ment. By sens­ing when the sig­nal is at a cri­ti­cal con­cen­tra­tion, bac­ter­ial cells are able to work to­geth­er to coor­din­ate pro­duct­ion of da­mag­ing tox­ins and this helps the in­fec­tion to over­whelm the host. Micro­biol­ogists have made huge strides in gain­ing an un­der­standing of the gen­etic mech­anisms in­volved in such be­hav­iours, but more re­cently we have been in­terest­ed in a more Dar­win­ian approach - how do these be­hav­iours evolve and how are they main­tained in na­ture?

WS: Be­sides the in­terest that it has in its own right, would you say that this re­search could prove use­ful from the med­i­cal pers­pec­tive?

D.: Yes in­deed. A num­ber of micro­bial so­cial be­hav­iours are in­volved in bac­terial viru­lence, and we hope to put the bac­teria them­selves at work as our allies in stal­ling or pre­vent­ing in­fect­ions. These be­hav­iours are costly for bac­terial cells to per­form and are there­fore sub­ject to exploit­ation by non-coop­er­at­ing “cheats” who gain all the bene­fits from the coop­er­ation of others but pay none of the costs. Cruc­ially, when a be­ha­viour is re­lated to viru­lence, a cheat is often less viru­lent and this has bene­fits to an in­fect­ion when they spread through it. It's rather an­al­o­gous to a hu­man society when people don't pay their taxes. These people still bene­fit from taxes paid by others but to an overall detri­ment to the pop­u­lation as a whole.

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