In my various readings and travelings through the complex and confusing world that is science, I have a tendency to pick up 'pet theories'. Theories that I think are so wonderful and fantastic and explanatory, and that make a lot of things that I'm doing make sense. I've never made any up myself (technically they are 'pet hypothesis' actually thinking about it) but I do steal other peoples.
My latest little pet comes from a series of papers written by Julian Davis; which look at the effects of low antibiotic concentrations on bacteria. Because antibiotics do exist in the wild, just in far lower quantities than are used in hospitals. The big question for a while has been what do they do in the wild. The common idea was that they were used for defense purposes, but they're usually released at quite low concentrations, only a few of them actually lead to death, and even then under very specific conditions.
[as an aside, Alexander Flemming (of penicillin fame) was very lucky to get the visual effect that he did. If the room had been slightly colder, or warmer, it wouldn't have worked. Naturally produced antibiotics at naturally produced concentrations are pretty rubbish when it comes to killing things]
So Davis's idea, which is an AMAZING idea, is that the antibiotics are used as signalling molecules. They are quite small molecules, which can diffuse relatively easily into the bacteria, and once inside they can effect which proteins the bacteria express. Take a look at the picture to the right (taken from this paper):
The little disks contain antibiotics, at low concentrations (known as sub-inhibitory concentrations because they don't inhibit growth). The colourful image on the right shows different levels of reporter protein. The antibiotics are effecting the level of protein expressed. If they can do it for a reporter protein, they can do it for other proteins in the cell. Antibiotic signalling could be a way for bacteria to find out and communicate information about their immediate environment, both within and between species.
Which is why the last week, back when I was still doing my project, my supervisor pulled our crazy-result plates out of the incubator, shook her head turned to me and said "Look. They are talking to each other!"
This is all epigenetics by the way, rather than genetics. The antibiotics are effecting which proteins the gene expresses, and at what levels, rather than changing the genome of the bacteria.The bacteria I've been working on, for example, have about 20 'silent genes' which don't get expressed in lab conditions, maybe antibiotic signalling would turn some of them on?
It's a lovely idea, and it fits in so well with the results I've been getting. I will reverentially place it with the Histone Code Hypothesis and the Aquatic Ape Hypothesis, in the place in my head reserved for pet theories.
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