It turns out that microbes have working memory!

Biologists studying groups of bacteria or biofilms have found that these so-called simple organisms have a great memory capacity. The results published by Cell Systems will help scientists create a launching pad in order to one day develop basic computing systems with living organisms such as bacteria.

Researchers found that light-stimulated bacterial cells memorize exposure a few hours after the initial stimulus. Researchers were able to manipulate the process to form memory patterns. The discovery reveals amazing parallels between low-level unicellular organisms and complex neurons that process memory in the human brain.

Even a few years ago, people did not think that the bacterial cells and neurons were something similar because they are such different cells. This discovery in bacteria provides clues and an opportunity to understand some of the key features of the brain in a simpler system.

Gurol Suel, University of California, San Diego

Following the recent discoveries at Süel’s laboratory that bacteria use ion channels to communicate with each other, new studies have shown that bacteria may also be able to store information about their past conditions. In a new study, scientists were able to encode complex memory patterns in bacterial biofilms with light-induced changes in the cell membrane potential of Bacillus subtilis bacteria. They found that the optical prints persisted for several hours after the initial stimulus, which led to a direct-controlled image with a resolution of one cell.

When the researchers made the stimulus light, it turned out that some bacteria remembered and reacted to it in a certain way. Unfortunately, it is currently impossible to visualize the work of neurons and human memory in this way. Researchers say the ability to code memory in bacterial communities may allow future biological calculations by capturing complex spatial patterns of memory in biofilms.

Bacteria are the dominant life form on this planet. The ability to write memory to a bacterial system and do it in a complex way is one of the first requirements for performing calculations using bacterial communities. Thus, it may be possible to capture synthetic chains in bacterial biofilms by activating various types of calculations in separate areas of the biofilm. On the whole, our work will inspire new membrane potential approaches in synthetic biology and provide a bacterial paradigm for memory-capable biological systems.

Gurol Suel, University of California, San Diego

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