It is well-known that bacteria can support each others’ growth and exchange nutrients. Scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology in Jena, Germany, and their colleagues at the universities of Jena, Kaiserslautern, and Heidelberg, however, have now discovered a new way of how bacteria can achieve this nutritional exchange. They found that some bacteria can form nanotubular structures between single cells that enable a direct exchange of nutrients.
Bacteria usually live in species-rich communities and frequently exchange nutrients and other metabolites. Until now, it was unclear whether microorganisms exchange metabolites exclusively by releasing them into the surrounding environment or whether they also use direct connections between cells for this purpose. Scientists from the Research Group Experimental Ecology and Evolution at the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology in Jena, Germany addressed this question using the soil bacterium Acinetobacter baylyi and the gut microbe Escherichia coli. By experimentally deleting bacterial genes from the genome of both species, the scientists generated mutants that were no longer able to produce certain amino acids, yet produced increased amounts of others.
In co-culture, both bacterial strains were able to cross-feed each other, thereby compensating the experimentally induced deficiencies. However, separating the two bacterial strains with a filter that allowed free passage of amino acids, yet prevented a direct contact between cells, abolished growth of both strains. “This experiment showed that a direct contact between cells was required for the nutrient exchange to occur,” explains Samay Pande, who recently obtained his PhD at the Max Planck Institute in Jena on this research project and now started a postdoc at the ETH Zürich.
Electron micrograph of genetically modified Acinetobacter baylyi and Escherichia coli strains. The bacteria exchange amino acids via nanotubes (i.e. tube-like connections between cells). Credit: Universitätsklinikum Jena/Martin Westermann