Lab Chat: How bacteria come up with a Plan B
Researchers watched e. coli react as they were deprived of key nutrients. (CDC)
Scientists have discovered that E. coli have a backup plan to keep up with a day’s work when deprived of key nutrients. Here’s what Zemer Gitai of Princeton told me about the work, published in Nature Microbiology.
What did you set out to study?
There’s a balance between the resources a cell puts into making proteins and the resources it puts into making ribosomes, which are factories that make proteins. The idea, especially for unicellular organisms like bacteria, is that they’re efficient and those factories work close to capacity. We looked at what would happen if cells had limited carbon, nitrogen, or phosphorus.
How did the bacteria compensate?
With limited phosphorous, the cells grew at the same rate, but with half as many factories, which suggests they're not necessarily efficient. With limited carbon, growth slowed. The factories work pretty fast, but only about half are actually working. We think this shows E. coli being an optimist — when times are bad, instead of taking apart factories to eke out every last bit of growth, E. coli just shuts down half and waits to see if things get better.