Glowing Bacteria Light Up Ocean
This Research in Action article was provided to LiveScience in partnership with the National Science Foundation.
This photo shows a petri dish swabbed with a culture of bioluminescent marine bacteria. The bacteria give off light using a process known as quorum sensing that is controlled by four small RNA molecules within each of them.
When only one bacterium is present it has the ability to produce light, but doesn’t because it’s too small. When it’s alone, it could produce only a feeble glow, so it reserves its resources until others of its kind are around.
To determine when that happens, the bacterium sends out a chemical signal that says, essentially, “Hey! I’m here. Is anybody else here?” After listening for an answer and counting, the bacteria can determine when a quorum is reached. At that point, the RNA-controlled process of light production switches on.
While glowing marine bacteria use the quorum-sensing method to take roll and determine when conditions are right to shine a bright light, other bacteria use the same process to mount an attack and infect us. The bacteria that cause cholera, for instance, use quorum sensing to determine when enough of them are around to make it worth their while to release toxin.
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