Last week (OK, it was actually the week before that, but still), I listened to a fascinating podcast called "Tiny Conspiracies" by Dr. Bonnie Bassler about how some microbes can talk to each other. I found this very cool because a) the little buggers aren't supposed to be able to do that and b) I could understand anything she said at all.
As a veteran of listening to people who are not coherent, it is always a pleasure to experience a presentation given by someone who does a good job. Many people have complained to me about my postings, saying that they go off on tangents and have no point. To these people I say: "I'm supposed to have a point?"
But back to small critters talking to each other. It was previously thought that microbes led sad, lonely lives concerned with things like growing, dividing, and causing plague. During the past 20 years or thereabouts, it has been discovered that bacteria and their ilk also do things like engage in vibrant conversations, write books and attend poetry readings...and then cause plague.
So perhaps I embellished that a bit. Perhaps a lot. But it appears that microbes do not live the isolated lives that we once imagined. In "Tiny Conspiracies" Dr. Bassler talks about how some microbes can do things like gauge the size of their population and then change their behavior accordingly.
For example, once a population has reached a critical limit, the colony can form a membrane around themselves for added protection. Another, rather more sinister example is that a colony of bacteria might wait to release a toxin until their population is large enough that it will have a better chance of overcoming their host.
This sort of info gets the "ain't it cool!" award from me partially because of the clever way Dr. Bassler describes some of their tests --- she used bits of DNA that would cause the microbes to light up when they were "talking" --- but also for the potential applications. If one were to interfere with this signaling mechanism, for example, it may be possible to cause some nasty pathogen to skip the whole "cause plague" bit.
So waltz on over to Microbe World and give Tiny Conspiracies a listen.