Human Lung Cells Can Break Up Bacterial Gangs

NIGMS Communications Office
While bacteria cannot speak or hear, their livelihood and ability to cause infections rest on effective communication skills. Large assemblies of networked bacteria called biofilms communicate by quickly trading chemical messages back and forth through a process known as quorum sensing. Scientists know that certain harmful bacteria use quorum sensing to evade the human immune system, and they also understand a good deal about how biofilms form and function. Until now, though, researchers were not aware that the human body could defend itself against quorum-sensing bacterial behaviors.

E. Peter Greenberg, Ph.D., of the University of Iowa in Iowa City discovered that one type of human lung cell, called an epithelial cell, has the means to cope with the potentially harmful quorum sensing that occurs within certain biofilms. He grew epithelial and other types of mammalian cells in laboratory dishes, then added molecules used in quorum sensing by Pseudomonas aeruginosa, the bacterium that causes most of the fatal lung infections in people with cystic fibrosis.

Writer: Alison Davis, Science Writing Contractor