Kamikaze Bacteria: Dying Bacteria Self-Sacrifice to Save their Colony

E. coli bacteria have been shown to absorb antibiotics in order to save others.
Chris Young

Over the years, medical research has shown that bacteria have some pretty ingenious strategies for surviving antibiotics: they can develop genetic resistance, hide in protective biofilm, and even delay their own growth.

Now, new research from scientists at Princeton and California State University-Northridge has unveiled a new tactic: self-sacrificing to save others. 

Tracking glowing molecules

When the group of scientists responsible for the study treated a population of E. coli bacteria with an antimicrobial molecule, they found that some dying cells absorbed large amounts of the antibiotic. In doing so, they helped their neighbors survive and continue spreading.

The researchers created a modified, green fluorescent version of the antibiotic, a peptide molecule known as LL37, which was chosen because it is naturally produced by the human body.

Time-lapse of bacterial growth over four hours
Source: Beatrice Trinidad/Princeton University

As the GIF above shows, the glowing molecules allowed the scientists to track their movements through a growing population of bacteria. The results showed that the glowing antibiotic was accumulating in groups of dying cells. The image shows a time-lapse of bacterial growth over four hours.

Uncovering the evolution of bacteria

Aside from providing new knowledge on the evolution of bacteria, the findings might pave the way for research into new ways to develop antibiotics that can specifically target cells that are not already dying. 

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“This research opens the doors to a lot of questions that were never asked before. Our findings have profound implications for the evolution of bacteria — which have been around for billions of years — as well as in medicine for the design and administration of novel antibiotics,” said Sattar Taheri-Araghi, one of the scientists behind the study, in a Princeton University press release.

The scientists originally reported their results in a paper published in eLife.

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