Touch is the most basic sense: Even bacteria use it to navigate their environment and communicate
11/30/2017 // Janine Acero // Views

Bacteria may be some of the simplest forms of organisms, but they have been known to be capable of responding to chemical signals and perceiving their environment even without sensory organs. However, a new research has revealed that bacteria actually possess a "sense of touch" and are able to recognize surfaces and change their behavior within seconds of contact, according to an entry in Science Daily online.

Imagine a snail's eyestalks recoiling instantly at a moment's contact with your skin. According to the research findings, the bacteria's sense of touch allows them to similarly change their behavior rapidly within seconds of encountering surfaces.

Decades of research exploring how bacteria perceive chemical signals have done little to enlighten researchers on how bacteria process mechanical stimuli and how they react based on these cues, but this has been answered for the first time by the research group led by Professor Urs Jenal at the University of Basel's Biozentrum.

"Using the non-pathogenic Caulobacter as a model, our group was able to show for the first time that bacteria have a 'sense of touch'. This mechanism helps them to recognize surfaces and to induce the production of the cell's own instant adhesive," said Jenal.

The Caulobacter bacterium is found in freshwater lakes and streams. It has a tail-like rotating motor called the flagellum, which enables Caulobacter to swim in liquids. The recent study reveals that the flagellum is the one that reacts to mechanical stimuli; when swimming cells touch surfaces, the motor is disturbed and the proton flow, which powers the rotation of the motor, is interrupted. This boosts the synthesis of a second messenger, which then stimulates the production of an adhesin, the appendages of bacteria that make it capable of latching onto other cells or surfaces. The researchers assume that this is the signal that triggers the response.


"This is an impressive example of how rapidly and specifically bacteria can change their behavior when they encounter surfaces," according to Jenal. The results from the experiments on Caulobacter, which is a harmless environmental bacterium, also applies to important human pathogens, he added.

The research group recently discovered how some pathogens respond to mechanical stimuli, which trigger their ability to infect the host and damage tissues, precisely with this sense of touch. This could open doors to better understand viruses and infectious diseases. (Related: Why do some viruses linger? Scientists are studying how viruses replicate different kinds of cells, some of which can hide inside the immune system.)

The study was published in Science.

World's deadliest pathogens

In 2015, the World Health Organization (WHO) listed some of the world's most dangerous emerging pathogens with high epidemic potential. These included Lassa fever, Rift Valley fever, Nipah, the Crimean Congo hemorrhagic fever, the coronaviruses MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome) and SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome), and the deadly Ebola virus disease (EVD) that caused the West African Ebola virus epidemic in the countries Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. It was the largest outbreak of Ebola in history, spanning from 2014 to 2016.

To learn more about a mosquito-borne infectious disease, visit

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