Bacteria in North Sea “telephone” each other


Researchers from VUB and the Netherlands have discovered that North Sea micro-organisms are communicating over much greater distances – and much more specific information – than once believed

Electrical communication

Researchers from the Free University of Brussels (VUB) and the Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research (NIOZ ) have discovered that a certain type of bacteria found in sediments in the North Sea are using an electrical network for signal transmission, much like in a telephone system.

“We already knew that there are bacteria living in the soil of the North Sea that are shaped like wires and conduct electric currents,” explained team leader Filip Meysman of NIOZ. “We have now discovered that these bacteria can adapt their currents rapidly and drastically and thus pass on information through the seabed.”

The micro-organisms that are situated higher in the seabed let other micro-organisms in the deeper sediments know whether it is light or dark and if there is oxygen available. With this information, the lower bacteria can adjust their behaviour accordingly.

Scientists knew already that micro-organisms communicate with each other by detecting all kinds of chemical signals. This mechanism, however works slowly and over very short distances. The new discovery shows that communication can bridge larger distances and is faster because it works via the transmission of electric signals. The bacteria were found to be sending signals over several centimetres in fewer than 10 minutes.
“We basically found a bacteria that has developed the tools to generate signals and transmit them, all on their own,” said Meysman. “If we figure out how the bacteria do this, this can lead to opportunities for innovative research on bio-electric materials and applications. For example, solar panels or smartphones could in the future work with minuscule bacteria wires.”

The study was carried out with support by the Flemish Fund for Scientific Research, the Dutch Organisation for Scientific Research and the European Research Council .

photo: Electricity-producing bacteria in the seabed