Memory Without a Brain: Bacteria’s Astonishing Ability to Remember, Revealed
In a study conducted at the University of Texas at Austin, researchers have uncovered a fascinating ability within bacteria that challenges conventional understanding. Published in the esteemed journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the study sheds light on how bacteria, lacking brains, possess the extraordinary capability to store memories and pass them on to future generations. This discovery unveils the intricate strategies employed by bacteria, providing insights into the development of antibiotic resistance and the formation of dangerous infections.
Lead author Souvik Bhattacharyya explained that despite the absence of brains, bacteria can gather information from their surroundings and utilize it to their advantage. If exposed to a particular environment repeatedly, bacteria can store and access that information later, reaping significant benefits.
The key player in this memory storage and transmission process is the ubiquitous chemical element, iron. As one of the most abundant elements on Earth, iron plays a pivotal role in shaping bacterial behavior. The researchers observed that individual bacteria with varying levels of iron exhibited distinct behaviors. Bacterial cells with lower iron levels displayed enhanced swarming capabilities, while those with higher iron levels formed biofilms—dense and sticky mats of bacteria on solid surfaces. Additionally, bacteria with balanced iron levels demonstrated antibiotic tolerance.
What makes this discovery even more remarkable is that these iron-induced memories can persist for up to four generations before gradually fading away by the seventh generation, according to the study. Bhattacharyya emphasized the significance of iron in the origin and evolution of cellular life on Earth, stating, “Before there was oxygen in the Earth’s atmosphere, early cellular life was utilizing iron for a lot of cellular processes. It makes sense that cells would utilize it in this way.”
The implications of this research are far-reaching, offering potential applications in preventing and combating bacterial infections, especially those involving antibiotic-resistant strains. By understanding the mechanisms behind bacterial behavior, researchers can develop targeted therapeutics that disrupt the iron-related memory storage and manipulation process.
“Iron levels are definitely a target for therapeutics because iron is an important factor in virulence. Ultimately, the more we know about bacterial behavior, the easier it is to combat them,” Bhattacharyya asserted.