Microbial communication may be quite similar to two people talking to each other, Ferry said.
In a crowded room, for example, two people having a conversation might have trouble hearing each other. In an echo chamber, the two also could find conversation difficult.
“In a quiet room, the ability to communicate may not be so bad,” Ferry said.
Each environment produces different conditions, and those conditions may interfere with or promote the ability of bacteria to communicate, he said.
“The interactions can be very significant,” Ferry said. “Some environments are more friendly. Bacteria may modify to improve communication or to be self-destructive.”
Ultimately, understanding communication among microbes could lead to advances in biotechnology and the development of new drugs to treat diseases. Chemical communication is at the heart of solving bacterial infections and many forms of antibiotic resistance, Decho said.
The collaboration between public-health and chemistry researchers was central to the understanding of the impact of the natural environment on the chemical cues affecting signaling among bacteria.
“Chemical signaling combines microbiology, chemical ecology and chemistry,” said Ferry, who has a public-health background. “Our research areas are a good fit for this study.”
Decho also is collaborating with Dr. Brian Benicewicz, a USC Educational Foundation Distinguished Professor in the department of chemistry and biochemistry, on a National Science Foundation-funded study on how nanoparticles can be bound with antibiotics to treat drug-resistant infections.