UT Scientists Build Tiny Bacterial Zoos


It may have exhibits, living creatures, and cages—but this isn’t your average zoo. The cages are made up of a Jell-O like substance and are so small that  you could line up 10 of them across the tip of a human hair. Exhibits feature various colonies of bacteria, and without a microscope you wouldn’t be able to see a thing.

A team of researchers at UT, led by professors Jason Shear, BS ’89, and Marvin Whiteley, has developed a method to group and cage bacterial colonies in minuscule, 3-D-printed housing structures to better understand the development and transmission of infection in humans. Using a laser, scientists shape cages to fit tiny groups of bacteria where they can be fed, monitored, and brought to reproduce.

Research team member Jodi Connell, PhD ’12, who has worked on the project for six years, says this is different than previous methods used to study bacteria in that it allows them to be observed in much smaller populations, with conditions more similar to those of their natural environment.

“Our new method allows us to really define and control the physical and chemical environment, which is critical for understanding how bacteria sense and respond to cues in their surroundings,” Connell says. “Small clusters of cells are thought to be an important mode of disease transmission for many human pathogens.”

The gelatinous substance the cages are composed of have the bacteria feeling right at home. Scientists are able to almost perfectly emulate the conditions of many biological environments where the bacteria would exist naturally, like the human body. The cages allow the bacterial communities to interact and effectively “communicate” with one another, much like they would when found in an infection.

Stepping away from the microscope and outside the lab, observation of the intercommunication of these bacteria translates into knowledge about how infections are spread in places like hospitals and how they build resistance to antibiotics.

Connell says insights like these could help in developing combative measures to fight dangerous infections.

“This could enable us to study how variables like population size, density, and the presence of multiple species of bacteria impact antibiotic resistance and their ability to transmit disease in settings like the human body or the surface of medical devices,” Connell says. “Understanding how bacteria adapt to these environments could provide details about how to disrupt survival mechanisms or identify processes as potential therapeutic targets to fight infectious disease.”

Photo courtesy Jason Shear.


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