E. Coli Individuality

Posted on April 22, 2008  Comments (2)

Expressing Our Individuality, the Way E. Coli Do by Carl Zimmer

A good counterexample is E. coli, a species of bacteria that lives harmlessly in every person’s gut by the billions. A typical E. coli contains about 4,000 genes (we have about 20,000). Feeding on sugar, the microbe grows till it is ready to split in two. It makes two copies of its genome, almost always managing to produce perfect copies of the original. The single microbe splits in two, and each new E. coli receives one of the identical genomes. These two bacteria are, in other words, clones.

A colony of genetically identical E. coli is, in fact, a mob of individuals. Under identical conditions, they will behave in different ways. They have fingerprints of their own.

E. coli appears to follow a universal rule. Other microbes exploit noise, as do flies, worms and humans. Some of the light-sensitive cells in our eyes are tuned to green light, and others to red. The choice is a matter of chance. One protein may randomly switch on the green gene or the red gene, but not both.

In our noses, nerve cells can choose among hundreds of different kinds of odor receptors. Each cell picks only one, and evidence suggests that the choice is controlled by the unpredictable bursts of proteins within each neuron. It’s far more economical to let noise make the decision than to make proteins that can control hundreds of individual odor receptor genes.

Identical genes can also behave differently in our cells because some of our DNA is capped by carbon and hydrogen atoms called methyl groups. Methyl groups can control whether genes make proteins or remain silent. In humans (as well as in other organisms like E. coli), methyl groups sometimes fall off of DNA or become attached to new spots. Pure chance may be responsible for changing some methyl groups; nutrients and toxins may change others.

Related: AndrogenesisSick spinach: Meet the killer E coliParasite Rex

2 Responses to “E. Coli Individuality”

  1. Curious Cat Science and Engineering Blog » Silk E.coli Sensors
    October 14th, 2008 @ 8:00 am

    “Scientists at Tufts University’s School of Engineering have demonstrated for the first time that it is possible to design such ‘living’ optical elements that could enable an entirely new class of sensors…”

  2. Curious Cat Science and Engineering Blog » Dennis Bray Podcast on Microbes As Computers
    October 13th, 2009 @ 10:39 am

    […] E. Coli Individuality – Wetware: A Computer in Every Living Cell by Dennis Bray – Programing Bacteria – […]

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