Remarkably, most of what's known about how microbes communicate with each other is the result of indirect observation and measurements. There has been no general or informative technique for observing the manifold metabolic exchange and signaling interactions between microbes, their hosts and environments. Until now. In a paper published in the May 5 online issue of the journal Angewandte Chemie, researchers at UC San Diego and Scripps Institute of Oceanography report using a new form of imaging mass spectrometry to dramatically visualize multiplex microbial interactions.
"Being able to better see and understand the metabolic interplay between microbial communities and their surrounding biology means we can better detect and characterize the molecules involved and perhaps discover new and better therapeutic and commercially viable compounds," said Pieter C. Dorrestein, PhD, associate professor at the UCSD Skaggs School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences and the paper's senior author.
As their first subject, the scientists collected marine microbial assemblages scraped off the slimy surfaces of a barnacle attached to the Scripps Pier. The resulting images, produced after careful preparation, offered new revelations.
"One of the things we see that we haven't with other techniques is that the dialog between microbes is multiplexed," said Dorrestein. "There are many conversations going on at the same time, many changes happening at the same time. We see competition for resources such as iron, but also that microbes secrete molecules that alter the phenotypes (sets of observable characteristics) of neighboring organisms."
Dorrestein said the ability to better visualize the vastly complex world of microbial communication is changing the ways scientists investigate how two or more microbes are studied and eventually engineered.
"Rather than enumerating which microbes are present, as in many metagenomic efforts, our current approach is anticipated to address the why, when and how questions of microbial interactions instead of just the who," Dorrestein said.