Can bacteria anticipate changes in their environment?

The homeostatic framework has long dominated the study of bacteria and microbiology, asserting that bacteria change their behavior based on the information they receive from their local environment. Researchers know, for example, that when E. coli bacteria enter the gut — an environment lacking oxygen — they switch to a form of anaerobic respiration in order to survive.

But there is a fundamental problem for any organism that behaves only by reacting to its environment after the fact: The behavior is not very efficient. If bacteria had the ability to use environmental cues to plan for future changes, the transition would be far smoother, and their survival more assured.

A group of microbiologists studying E. coli recently noted that before entering the deoxygenated gut, the bacteria enter the mouth and experience a rise in temperature. When the researchers exposed the bacteria to a similar increase in temperature, as if in anticipation of entering the gut, they found that E. coli turned to anaerobic respiration even without oxygen deprivation.

Predictive behavior within microbial genetic networks
Science June 6, 2008


Originally published October 9, 2008

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