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Bacteria can walk on 'legs'

Alan Boyle writes: Bacteria have legs? That suggestion seemed surprising to Gerard Wong, a bioengineering professor at the University of California at Los Angeles, when his students told him they were seeing some strange behavior in movies of the microbes.

"They said, 'You know, we noticed that some of the bacteria — in fact, a lot of them — popped a wheelie and stood up," he recalled. "And I said, 'What are you talking about?'"

But in a sense, it's true: The movies show that the Pseudomonas aeruginosa bacteria wiggle themselves up into a vertical position and move leglike projections known as Type IV pili to wander around a surface. Wong and his colleagues describe the phenomenon in this week's issue of the journal Science.

You'd think that if bacteria could walk, someone would have noticed it long ago. And it may well have been noticed. But as far as Wong knows, his research team's report is the first systematic set of observations of the behavior. He said that once word got out about the pili phenomenon — for example, at an American Physical Society session in March — he started hearing comments that other researchers were seeing the walking as well. And then came the evolution jokes. "In a way, it's kind of like 'bacteria erectus,'" Wong said. What's next? Opposable thumbs?

The funny thing is that Wong's team didn't start out looking for bacteria legs at all. Instead, they were developing an image-processing algorithm to sort through masses of microbe movies, just to check on the effects of the genetic modifications they were making. Pseudomonas aeruginosa is a pathogen that plays a role in cystic fibrosis, and if some genetic twist makes them less able to do their dirty business — which appears to involve forming constrictive biofilms in the lungs — that could suggest new medications for fighting the disease.

About 30,000 Americans have cystic fibrosis, and the median life expectancy for people with the genetic disease is about 38 years. The disease isn't caused by bacteria, but it leaves the lungs more vulnerable to infection by bugs such as Pseudomonas aeruginosa.

"Once the biofilms form, they become very resistant to antibiotics," Wong said. "At some point there's just absolutely nothing you can do."

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