Olfaction in Bacteria

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The ability to smell is inherited by almost all developed organisms, which is facilitated by specialized organs and cells. However, until very recent times, scientists were unaware of the olfaction of bacteria although they knew the same to exist among yeast and certain other organisms. Discovering olfaction among bacteria would mean that scientists might have stepped on the most ‘simple’ or evolutionary lowest olfactory organ ever discovered although more research is needed to accurately verify the process of olfaction and the structures supporting the same in bacteria.

The study

The study which lead to the discovery of olfaction in bacteria was conducted by a team of marine microbiologists from the Newcastle University and the research was published in the Biotechnology journal. According to its findings the research highlight that the bacteria can ‘smell’ volatile chemicals in the air such as ammonia and respond to such smells by producing a ‘slime’, which is scientifically known as the ‘biofilm’.

The basis of assuming bacteria as having olfactory ability

The underlying principle behind bacteria ‘smelling’ ammonia is that bacteria require nitrogen as an essential ingredient for producing certain proteins and nucleic acids within the cell in order to maintain life. Thus, it is necessary for any bacterial colony to maintain a constant supply of nitrogen and by being able to sense or ‘smell’ ammonia, which originate from nitrogen rich sources, the bacteria can direct its colonization towards nitrogen rich environments.

Importance of the finding

In the real world, the production of the biofilm, which is a colonization of the bacteria, would affect many aspects of human life. For example, formation of biofils is said to be one of the leading causes of infection in medical implants such as heart valves, artificial hips and even in breast implants. In marine industry, a process known as ‘biofouling’ in which biofilm formation damages the functioning of certain industrial equipment, cost millions. Thus, the discovery might help unravel ways of curbing such biofilm formation and therefore improve fatal infections among humans and save millions of dollars wasted on repairing marine equipment.

At the same time, scientists points out that as certain biofilm strive on oil, it can be used to clean-up oil spills without causing much damage to the environment. In addition, knowing how the bacteria recognize or communicate with its enemies would mean that the medical science would be able to develop novel drugs that could inhibit the growth of harmful bacteria without having to cause side effects. Furthermore, being able to manipulate the formation of bacterial biofilm means that the scientists would be able to prevent bacteria from resisting certain drugs, which currently pose a significant challenge in medical management.

Opposing views

However, certain other researchers argue that the method in which the investigation was done and the conclusions derived through its findings might not be scientifically acceptable. They point towards the use of ‘olfaction’ to describe sensing ammonia by the bacteria, which in fact could be just chemical sensing. Therefore, the research towards unraveling the mystery of olfaction among bacteria is not yet over or might well be concluded as ‘just beginning’.

More about this author: Dr Pandula Siribaddana

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