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Single gene lets bacteria jump from host to host
Date:2/1/2009

MADISON All life plants, animals, people depends on peaceful coexistence with a swarm of microbial life that performs vital services from helping to convert food to energy to protection from disease.

Now, with the help of a squid that uses a luminescent bacterium to create a predator-fooling light organ and a fish that uses a different strain of the same species of bacteria like a flashlight to illuminate the dark nooks of the reefs where it lives, scientists have found that gaining a single gene is enough for the microbe to switch host animals.

The finding, reported this week (Feb. 1) in the journal Nature by a team of scientists from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is important not only because it peels back some of the mystery of how bacteria evolved to colonize different animals, but also because it reveals a genetic pressure point that could be manipulated to thwart the germs that make us sick.

"It seems that every animal we know about has microbes associated with it," says Mark J. Mandel, the lead author of the study and a postdoctoral fellow in the UW-Madison School of Medicine and Public Health. "We pick up our microbial partners from the environment and they provide us with a raft of services from helping digestion to protection from disease."

In the Pacific, a species of bacteria known as Vibrio fischeri lives in luminescent harmony with two distinct hosts: the diminutive nocturnal bobtail squid and the reef-dwelling pinecone fish. In the squid, which feeds at night near the ocean surface, one strain of the bacterium forms a light organ that mimics moonlight and acts like a cloaking device to shield the squid from hungry predators below. In the pinecone fish, another strain of the bacterium colonizes a light organ within the animal's jaw and helps illuminate the dark reefs in which it forages at night. The fish light organ may also play a role in attracting the zooplankton that make up the pinecone fi
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Contact: Mark J. Mandel
mmandel@wisc.edu
608-262-5550
University of Wisconsin-Madison
Source:Eurekalert

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