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Bacteria shown to have working memory similar to neurons.

Bacteria are abundant microscopic organisms found everywhere. Classed as a prokaryotic lifeform due to their unicellular status, they have many roles in nature such as being a source of numerous infections ranging in severity or performing beneficial roles where they aid in decomposition and waste management. These microbes are also symbiotic, aiding in the regulation of homeostasis and immunity in the human body via the microbiota, hinting at the limitless potential contained within these communal single-celled interlopers. Now, a study from researchers at UCSD identifies the capacity for memory in communities of microbes contained in biofilms. The team stimulated bacterial cells with a light demonstrating their capacity to ‘remember’ the exposure hours after the initial illumination through the encoding of visible memory patterns on the biofilm. The study is published in the journal Cell Systems.

Previous studies show biocomputing involves data processing utilizing artificial biological components to store and manipulate information gathered by tracking processes in the human body, resulting in a smaller, faster computer endowed with greater accuracy. This field has been deemed plausible in regards to smart drugs, bio-friendly autonomous entities capable of living within the human body monitoring disease, and releasing therapeutics as and when needed. Recent studies from the team established bacteria use ion channels to communicate with their neighbors, suggesting these microorganisms may also possess the ability to store information pertaining to their past states. The current study demonstrates light-induced changes in the membrane potential of microbes can be used to produce single cell memory patterns imprinted in bacterial biofilms.

The current study encodes complex memory patterns using illumination on biofilms made up of Bacillus subtilis, a bacterium found in soil and the digestive system of certain animals and humans. Results show the light-induced change to potassium channels in the bacteria lasted for hours, with complex patterns encoded into the microbes via membrane-potential-based memory, similar to that of neurons. Data findings show this optical stimulion is on a single-cell scale.

The lab states this is the first time memory has been visualized in individual prokaryotic-based cells, providing parallels between unicellular microorganisms and the sophisticated neurons populating the human brain. They go on to add It may be possible to imprint synthetic circuits in microbes harnessing the activation of various types of data processing in separate areas of the biofilm simultaneously.

The team surmises they have successfully encoded membrane-based-potential memory within a microbial biofilm. For the future, the researchers state this discovery is a step closer to the merging of synthetic biology with memory capable bacteria in nextgen biocomputing.

Source: University of California San Diego

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