Bacteria living in biofilms communicate through potassium waves

A new paper in Nature this week shows that bacteria in biofilms talk to each other by potassium waves through ion channels.

Go to the profile of Elisabeth M. Bik
Oct 23, 2015
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Ion channels enable electrical communication in bacterial communities - Arthur Prindle, Jintao Liu, Munehiro Asally, San Ly, Jordi Garcia-Ojalvo & Gürol M. Süel - Nature, October 2015


The study of bacterial ion channels has provided fundamental insights into the structural basis of neuronal signalling; however, the native role of ion channels in bacteria has remained elusive. Here we show that ion channels conduct long-range electrical signals within bacterial biofilm communities through spatially propagating waves of potassium. These waves result from a positive feedback loop, in which a metabolic trigger induces release of intracellular potassium, which in turn depolarizes neighbouring cells. Propagating through the biofilm, this wave of depolarization coordinates metabolic states among cells in the interior and periphery of the biofilm. Deletion of the potassium channel abolishes this response. As predicted by a mathematical model, we further show that spatial propagation can be hindered by specific genetic perturbations to potassium channel gating. Together, these results demonstrate a function for ion channels in bacterial biofilms, and provide a prokaryotic paradigm for active, long-range electrical signalling in cellular communities.

Go to the profile of Elisabeth M. Bik

Elisabeth M. Bik

Science Editor, uBiome

After receiving my PhD at Utrecht University in The Netherlands, I worked at the Dutch National Institute for Health and the St. Antonius Hospital in Nieuwegein. From 2001-2016 I worked in the laboratory of David Relman at Stanford University, where I have worked on the characterization of human oral, gastric, and intestinal microbiotas, and that of marine mammals. In 2016 I joined uBiome where we allow citizen scientists to sequence their microbiome. I also run Microbiome Digest,, an almost daily compilation of scientific papers in the rapidly growing microbiome field, tweet on Twitter as @MicrobiomDigest, and scan published papers for image manipulation.


Go to the profile of Jen Thoroughgood
Jen Thoroughgood over 2 years ago

Thanks for highlighting this paper Elisabeth. It's certainly an interesting one, and was picked up by a few mainstream news outlets, including and