Image via WikipediaBonnie Bassler, a microbiologist at Princeton, who discovered how bacteria communicate with each other describes how they use chemical molecules and enzymes to communicate. More details of her work from here
The research in my laboratory focuses on the molecular mechanisms that bacteria use for intercellular communication. Our goal is to understand how bacteria detect multiple environmental cues, and how the integration and processing of this information results in the precise regulation of gene expression.
The bacterial communication phenomenon that we study is called quorum sensing, which is a process that allows bacteria to communicate using secreted chemical signaling molecules called autoinducers. This process enables a population of bacteria to collectively regulate gene expression and, therefore, behavior.
In quorum sensing, bacteria assess their population density by detecting the concentration of a particular autoinducer, which is correlated with cell density. This “census-taking” enables the group to express specific genes only at particular population densities. Quorum sensing is widespread; it occurs in numerous Gram-negative and Gram-positive bacteria. In general, processes controlled by quorum sensing are ones that are unproductive when undertaken by an individual bacterium but become effective when undertaken by the group. For example, quorum sensing controls bioluminescence, secretion of virulence factors, sporulation, and conjugation. Thus, quorum sensing is a mechanism that allows bacteria to function as multi-cellular organisms.
She found that bacteria can effectively use chemicals to communicate and socialize. In her TED talk video she explains her research work in more understandable terms.
She is also attempting to develop effective strategies to fight diseases that have become antibiotic resistant by studying the underlying mechanisms of Bacterial communication.