Important new method probes dynamics of live microbial colonies in time, space

June 29, 2012
Important new method probes dynamics of live microbial colonies in time, space
Image of EMSL’s nanoDESI setup with a microbial colony grown on an agar surface.

Microbes communicate by excreting simple and complex molecules called metabolites that interact with, talk to, and manipulate their local environment and neighboring cells in a process known as metabolic exchange. Understanding the timing and distribution of these molecular exchanges will be useful for interpreting and potentially manipulating microbial communities for applications ranging from bioremediation to drug discovery.

An exciting and novel technique developed at EMSL now allows researchers to characterize, with high sensitivity and in time and space, the metabolite profile of living microbial communities grown on a soft agar surface. The new method combines EMSL’s nanospray desorption electrospray ionization (nanoDESI) mass spectrometry (MS) and a new bioinformatics technique called molecular networking, which was developed by EMSL users from the University of California, San Diego.

NanoDESI allows for the direct chemical analysis of microbial communities in space and time. Molecular networking is a new way to analyze, organize, and visualize MS data, such as from nanoDESI. During high-resolution MS analysis, thousands of molecules are detected, and structural information is gathered about these molecules by breaking them into fragments. Molecular networking assigns each molecule to a family with shared structural characteristics based on the observed fragmentation patterns—in this case, revealing insights about how communicate.

The combined nanoDESI and molecular networking approach was validated by studying Pseudomonas sp. strain SH-C52, a bacterium that protects plants from fungal infection. It successfully allowed researchers to detect and partially characterize the antifungal Pseudomonas agent thanamycin, a lipopeptide that is undetectable using traditional methods. The sensitivity afforded by nanoDESI coupled with molecular networking along with the potential for the broad implementation of the combined technique provide a significant gain toward characterizing complex microbial interactions by directly observing metabolic exchange processes—a long-sought breakthrough in the microbiology field.

Explore further: Scientists visualize how bacteria talk to one another

Related Stories

Scientists visualize how bacteria talk to one another

November 8, 2009

Using imaging mass spectrometry, researchers at the University of California, San Diego have developed tools that will enable scientists to visualize how different cell populations of cells communicate. Their study shows ...

Recommended for you

A 100-million-year partnership on the brink of extinction

May 24, 2016

A relationship that has lasted for 100 million years is at serious risk of ending, due to the effects of environmental and climate change. A species of spiny crayfish native to Australia and the tiny flatworms that depend ...

Silencing cholera's social media

May 24, 2016

Bacteria use a form of "social media" communication called quorum sensing to monitor how many of their fellow species are in the neighborhood, allowing them to detect changes in density and respond with changes in collective ...

Evolution influenced by temporary microbes

May 24, 2016

Life on Earth often depends on symbiotic relationships between microbes and other forms of life. A new theory suggests that researchers should consider how symbiotic microbes can influence the evolution of life on Earth, ...

Great apes communicate cooperatively

May 24, 2016

Human language is a fundamentally cooperative enterprise, embodying fast-paced interactions. It has been suggested that it evolved as part of a larger adaptation of humans' unique forms of cooperation. In a cross-species ...

Rare evolutionary event detected in the lab

May 23, 2016

It took nearly a half trillion tries before researchers at The University of Texas at Austin witnessed a rare event and perhaps solved an evolutionary puzzle about how introns, non-coding sequences of DNA located within genes, ...

In changing oceans, cephalopods are booming

May 23, 2016

Humans have changed the world's oceans in ways that have been devastating to many marine species. But, according to new evidence, it appears that the change has so far been good for cephalopods, the group including octopuses, ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.