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Ulcer-causing bacteria baffled by mucus: Viscoelasticity impact on collective behavior of swimming microorganisms

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Even the tiniest microscopic organisms make waves when they swim. In fact, dealing with these waves is a fact of life for the ulcer-causing bacteria H. pylori.

The bacteria are known to change their behavior in order to compensate for the waves created by other bacteria swimming around in the same aquatic neighborhood. From the relatively simple actions of these individual bacteria emerges a complex, coordinated group behavior.

A new study by engineering researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute demonstrates how introducing certain polymers—like those found in human mucus and saliva—into the environment makes it significantly more difficult for H. pylori and other microorganisms to coordinate. The findings raise many new questions about the relationship between the individual and group behaviors of bacteria. The study also suggests that human mucus, saliva, and other biological fluid barriers may have evolved to disrupt the ability of harmful bacteria to coordinate.

"In the human body, microorganisms are always moving around in mucus, saliva, and other systems that exhibit elasticity due to the presence of polymers. Our study is among the first to look at how this elasticity impacts the collective behavior of microorganisms like H. pylori," said lead researcher Patrick T. Underhill, assistant professor in the Howard P. Isermann Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering at Rensselaer. "What we found is that polymers do in fact have a substantial impact on the flows created by the swimming bacteria, which in turn makes it more difficult for the individual bacteria to coordinate with each other. This opens the door to new ways of looking at our immune system."
 
 

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