Thursday 4 June 2020

Communities of microbes found to have working memory

Biologists studying communities of bacteria have discovered that these so-called simple organisms feature a robust capacity for memory. Using light, researchers were able to encode complex memory patterns and visualize cells with memory. The discovery reveals surprising parallels between low-level single-celled organisms and sophisticated neurons that process memory in the human brain. The finding also provides a starting path for scientists to one day design basic computing systems with living organisms such as bacteria.

Following recent discoveries by the Süel lab that bacteria use ion channels to communicate with each other, new research suggested that bacteria might also have the ability to store information about their past states. In the new study, the researchers were able to encode complex memory patterns in bacterial biofilms with light-induced changes in the cell membrane potential of Bacillus subtilis bacteria. The optical imprints, they found, lasted for hours after the initial stimulus, leading to a direct, controllable single-cell resolution depiction of memory.

The ability to encode memory in bacterial communities, the researchers say, could enable future biological computation through the imprinting of complex spatial memory patterns in biofilms.


Chih-Yu Yang, Maja Bialecka-Fornal, Colleen Weatherwax, Joseph W. Larkin, Arthur Prindle, Jintao Liu, Jordi Garcia-Ojalvo, Gürol M. Süel. Encoding Membrane-Potential-Based Memory within a Microbial Community. Cell Systems, 2020; DOI: 10.1016/j.cels.2020.04.002

Posted by Dr. Tim Sandle, Pharmaceutical Microbiology Resources (

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