Bacteria as Art
Reported December 2008
SAN DIEGO, CA. (Ivanhoe Broadcast News) -- There was a time when doctors thought antibiotics could cure all. It's a different story today as drug-resistant bacteria emerge in places like hospitals and schools. To keep up with changes in bacterial behavior, scientists are fighting bacteria using an artistic approach.
Biophysicist Herbert Levine's Petri dishes look like an exhibit at a modern art museum. His beautiful images are actually made from bacteria similar to the ones that cause deadly diseases. Dr. Levine uses bacteria in Petri dishes in his quest to discover the next super drug. He's fighting a new generation of bacterial infections that includes MRSA, a flesh-eating disease resistant to antibiotics.
"We thought we had a whole arsenal of antibiotics and these would always work … but the bacteria are smarter than we used to give them credit for being," Dr. Levine, who works at the University of California in San Diego, told Ivanhoe.
Dr. Levine and his team have gone back to the basics of biology. They have created bacteria patterns by changing the temperature and limiting the food sources inside Petri dishes. Despite harsh conditions, the colonies find ways to communicate and reproduce.
"If we can understand what strategies they're using, we can devise methods to defeat those strategies," Dr. Levine said.
Through Dr. Levine's work, scientists have learned bacteria are very resourceful. They enclose themselves in areas antibiotics can't find. They also soak up antibiotics to keep the rest of their colony safe and transform themselves into new strains that are less sensitive to the drugs.
"If that basic understanding of nature leads to better life for humanity, then, of course, that makes us even more excited," Dr. Levine said.
Along the way, scientists turned the study of bacteria into an art form.
Dr. Levine and his colleague, Eshel Ben-Jacob, use the patterns to create computer models. One day those models could be the basis for new medicines that fight all types of bacteria.
The American Physical Society contributed to the information contained in the TV portion of this report.
Click here to Go Inside This Science or contact:
Dr. Herbert Levine
La Jolla, CA
American Physical Society
College Park, MD
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Bacteria as Art
There was a time when doctors thought antibiotics could cure all. It's a different story today as drug-resistant bacteria emerge in places like hospitals and schools. To keep up with changes in bacterial behavior, scientists are fighting bacteria using an artistic approach.