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While mutations in the bacterial genome can make individual bacteria resistant to drugs, another underappreciated weapon of pathogenic bacteria is their ability to communicate and cooperate to further enhance their abilities to invade and persist within a host. But recently scientists have begun to attack this problem. Just released for advanced publication in Nature Chemical Biology is a study showing the ability to disrupt communication between bacteria.

Bacteria communicate with each other through a process called quorum sensing. In essence certain bacterial species can detect their population density, and when a certain threshold, or “quorum”, is reached, they start producing chemical compounds that are generally beneficial to the community as a whole. In different species this can mean different activities, but in a wide-ranging number of these species, including aggressive bacterial pathogens such as S. pneumoniae, N. meningitides, Klebsiella pneumoniae, and Staphylococcus aureus, one of the enzymes used to initiate this process is similar, and researchers have shown it is possible to disrupt or inhibit this process. And, they have also shown that this is stable over numerous generations without producing resistance.

One of the reasons that bacteria communicate is that it is beneficial for them to form biofilms. Biofilms are large aggregations of bacteria that produce a sticky film that is impenetrable by antibiotics or the immune system. Thus, their formation is a significant cause of chronic bacterial infections, and a recent target of a number of different researchers. Monday’s Washington post, reported on the finding that researchers have found an organic compound that can break-up biofilms (the original paper is here). The Post also details the findings of other researchers working on similar projects, and says that some products that disperse biofilms may actually be available soon.

Disrupting quorum sensing and biofilm dispersion would be significant steps in treating infections, especially chronic infections, and would likely significantly reduce the morbidity and mortality of certain infections, and would likely reduce the antibiotic pressure that many pathogens face, as long-term drug treatment would be reduced.

We first wrote about quorum-sensing in the initial ETC report, and stated that we thought effective treatments based on quorum-sensing would likely be years away, it is good to see that progress is being made, and hope that more effective treatments will be available soon.