New research tracks how bacteria communicate, share DNA to resist antibiotics

Posted at 4:29 PM, Feb 18, 2019
and last updated 2019-02-19 14:58:28-05

BOISE — A growing public health crisis is happening all over the world, including our rivers, soil, and hospitals here in Idaho.

"We’ve used tons and tons of antibiotics lately, these bacteria that are resistant are rising in frequency everywhere on the planet basically," said University of Idaho Professor Eva top, "we’re traveling much more, so if something pops up in China or India, the next day or week it can be in the U.S. or Europe or wherever."

Researchers at the University of Idaho are in the midst of finding a solution.
For the first time, they’re able to track bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics by studying their gene transfer and communication. Top says when usually studying the mobile elements in DNA, you break it up into pieces and can’t puzzle it back together.

In collaboration with Phase Genomics, a Seattle-based biotech company, they're able to change that.

"Basically a way to freeze all the DNA in one cell before you break it open into pieces so that the little mobile elements that are separate from the chromosome can be located with the chromosome so we can say, 'okay they come from 'bacterium a' and not from 'bacterium b'," said Top.

"So what we're going to do is start a large growth of bacteria, so we have a petri dish which serves as food for the bacteria,” said junior biology major at Boise State University Elizabeth Mosqueda.

Their professor Dr. Rajesh Nagarajan received a grant to study bacterial communication, which he teaches his students.

"If you think about it, bacteria is a single-celled organism, just one cell," said Nagarajan, "Us, like adults, humans, we have about one trillion cells. In terms of numbers, bacteria are no match to us. In fact, a single cell cannot have an impact in the environment, but they seldom act as a single-celled species, they always act as part of a social network."

He says its kind of like how we social network with each other, from all over the globe on Facebook or Twitter. Their network unites them to fight 'common enemies' like antibiotics.

"When I press send, a signal from this device is transmitted and then its picked up by your device, so that transmutation of signals is critical for communication," said Nagarajan, "similarly bacteria have chemical signals that they transmit to the external wall that are picked up by neighboring bacteria."

The research won't fix the resistance per say, but knowing where the problem is coming from, and how the bacteria are communicating, can eventually slow it down.

"We spend this time in the classroom learning about what everyone else already knows, and now we get to add to the conversation and expand our knowledge of science,” said Mosqueda.