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The same, but different

New DFG Priority Program on the individuality of bacterial populations

Munich, 04/19/2011

The cells in a bacterial population are generally regarded as being genetically identical and have the same phenotype, i.e. all display the same characteristic properties and behavior. But this long accepted view is now being transformed, as biologists have come to realize that such strict equality is not the rule. The cells that make up a colony of microorganisms can be quite heterogeneous in phenotype and may even manifest rudiments of individuality and social behavior. They communicate among themselves, cooperate with each other and can even develop distinct survival strategies. The new Priority Program is designed to bring together biologists, physicists, chemists and mathematicians to throw more light on this thus far less known aspect of bacterial populations. The program will be financed by the German Research Foundation (DFG), which will provide 5.8 million euros over a period of three years, in the first instance. Coordinator of the project is LMU Professor Kirsten Jung (Chair of Microbiology).

According to Kirsten Jung, biofilms present particularly striking examples of the phenotypic heterogeneity that lurks in bacterial populations. Biofilms are made up of massive numbers of microorganisms that grow as thin sheets on surfaces. Many types of bacteria form biofilms, including common species belonging to genera such as Bacillus, Pseudomonas, Salmonella and Escherichia. The members of these communities can differ in a whole spectrum of traits like metabolic activity, tolerance to antibiotics, ability to form long-lived spores. This makes a real division of labor possible. Indeed, as Jung points out, such phenomena must have been of benefit to microorganisms over the course of evolution, as they would otherwise no longer be manifest. Phenotypic heterogeneity becomes especially obvious during transitional phases, as when previously free-living bacteria infect the cells of animal hosts, for example.

What are the factors - both environmental and intrinsic to the cells - that give rise to such heterogeneity? What molecular switches are able to program different modes of behavior within a population? What design principles underlie the diversity of behaviors that one can find within colonies and confer the rudiments of individuality on bacterial cells? These are among the questions to be pursued by some 25 specialists in various disciplines, who are participating in the new program “Phenotypic Heterogeneity and the Sociobiology of Bacterial Populations.” The answers will help us understand how communication and division of labor function among bacteria and how microorganisms come to adopt different survival strategies. The insights gained will no doubt have eminently practical implications, as they may point to new ways of preventing the formation of biofilms, optimizing biotechnological processes, and understanding the bases of antibiotic resistances.

The program will not only facilitate collaborations between researchers at LMU, it will also involve close cooperation with experts at other German universities, and at institutes belonging to the Max-Planck-Gesellschaft and the Helmholtz-Gemeinschaft. In addition, DFG Priority Programs provide special opportunities for junior researchers, offering workshops, Summer Schools and start-up funding for post-doctoral projects. (math/ph)


Prof. Dr. Kirsten Jung
Department of Biologie I
Chair of Microbiology
Phone: +49 (0) 89 / 2180 – 74500

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