Disrupting Social Lives of Superbugs
Researches trying to learn how bacteria develop antibiotic resistance are getting clues from the networks formed among millions of twitter users.
Radu Marculescu, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, thinks better understanding of the way information flows through Twitter networks may provide insights on the way bacteria communicate with one another to initiate formation of dense biofilms that protect them against antibiotics. Bacteria communicate through a process called quorum sensing, in which cells release a chemical signal when their population has reached a certain density. In effect, the researchers say, that means the bacteria have formed a social network that coordinates their behavior to build the biofilm, the biological shield that thwarts antibiotic penetration.
A Scientific American story by Larry Greenemeier explains how the micoblogging service is a useful metaphor for bacterial behavior, and why the complex mathematics of networks, in microbial and social media worlds, may help fight treatment resistant pathogens. Marculescu and his CMU team grew and studied many different bacterial specimens to learn what population density and other circumstances for each type preceded the cooperation to build the biofilm. Then they created detailed software simulations of biofilm creation and development.
The story tells how scientists found it helpful to think about Twitter. They based computer models on three observed bacterial behaviors. One bacterial group creates and passes along signaling molecules that tell all network cells to generate substances to for the biofilm; the scientists likened that to composing molecular tweets and retweets. A second group sends signals, but doesn’t share messages it receives—it doesn’t retweet, but instead hoards resources for its own growth. A third group neither tweets nor retweets. It just uses its uses its own material to build its own biofilm.
“We are able to use concepts from network theory to describe the bacteria quorum sensing network dynamics across the population, and its contribution to virulence factors, biofilm formation and antibiotic resistance,” Marculescu told the Scientific American. CMU researchers think information about behavior of intercellular bacterial networks can help other researchers learn to disrupt quorum sensing, which could thwart creation of biofilms that defend against antibiotics. Marculescu thinks that as work on carefully designed computer models of bacterial behavior continues, it will help scientists learn how different pathogens act under attack and enable discovery of more effective treatments. In the long term, he thinks, the math and modeling will aid in development of personalized treatment plans for individual patients.
Marculescu is to present his “molecular tweeting” research this month at the Association for Computing Machinery’s ACM Conference on Bioinformatics, Computational Biology and Health Informatics in Atlanta. Read the Scientific American story here