Bacteria have a ‘memory’ they pass from one generation to the next, say UCLA scientists

Pseudomonas aeruginosa bacteria is seen in an image by Wikimedia Commons user HansN. UCLA researchers have determined that such bacteria possess a form of “memory” that can pass between generations. (Image reproduced under the CC-BY-SA-3.0 license)

LOS ANGELES — An international team of researchers led by UCLA scientists has discovered that bacteria have a “memory” that passes sensory knowledge from one generation of cells to the next, all without a central nervous system or any neurons, UCLA reported today.

“This is a huge surprise to us and to the field,” said Gerard Wong, a professor of bioengineering and of chemistry and biochemistry, member of the California NanoSystems Institute at UCLA and one of the study’s senior authors.

The findings are a major step toward understanding hard-to-treat infections caused by bacterial biofilms in people with cystic fibrosis.

The team studied a strain of bacteria called Pseudomonas aeruginosa that forms biofilms in the airways of people with cystic fibrosis and causes persistent infections that can be lethal, according to a UCLA statement. Bacterial biofilms can also form on surgical implants, like an artificial hip; when they do, they can cause the implant to fail.

Bacterial biofilms are composed of genetically identical bacteria cells that can colonize nearly any surface and form communities in which single cells organize and cooperate.

“The first step in forming a biofilm is that bacteria must sense the surface and develop the ability to attach,” said Calvin Lee, a UCLA graduate student, and the study’s co-first author. “For the first time, we were able to follow the behavior of entire lineages of individual cells, and we discovered that the descendants could remember the surface sensing signals of their ancestors.”

The findings were published online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and will appear later in the journal’s print edition.

The study’s other authors include Jaime de Anda, a UCLA graduate student and co-first author, and Kun Zhao of China’s Tianjin University. The research was supported in part by a Human Frontiers Science program grant, the National Institutes of Health, the Recruitment Program of Global Experts, the National Science Foundation and the National Cancer Institute of the NIH.

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