Early life may have been far more like animals than we thought, suggests new research that shows bacteria can 'develop' like an embryo.

When bacteria band together, they ooze out a protective communal home of slime to form thriving, densely packed colonies known as biofilms. But should an intruder enter, one team of scientists were able to steer bacteria to form intricate interaction networks custom-made to block the passage of other bacteria.

Published in the journal Cell Host & Microbe, the research suggests that organisms with their own unique properties that give them their own identity may go under-appreciated by us, he says.

"What we really think of as the revolutionary thing about biofilms – like infectious kind of antibodies or unbroken cells, and then bacteria that are actually living organisms – is that they have this unique property that allows them to separate themselves from others and shape their own communities."

Fine-grain interactions

Previous research has shown that bacteria have incredibly fine-grain interactions that allow them to generate tissue-level effects to their environments.

These properties also enable them to form highly organised ecosystems, such as biofilms.

At first, this model was really weird to watch.

A biofilmy colony is tiny and densely packed, like a collection of smokers at a bar hoping to light up the shisha smoke.

In the lab, Jan Teluk's team chose a common species of bacterium, Enterobacter cloacae.

Earlier research had shown that this simple organism is one of the first cells that develop into a dominant residential vertical biofilm such as that found in infectious diseases.

"We isolated a population of cells from the biofilm biomass and conducted very carefully controlled growth on culture media. We realised that our cells were more resembles a primitive filament than anything else," Professor Teluk says.

"We then used a fine magnetic brush to pick up some of these living cellulose filaments and investigated their dictates with an electron microscope, and so we were able to reconstruct a living example that was sticky in its characteristic way."

Control of the groups

But there's more going on than that. Previous researchers had shown that information from cells in an organism's "cellular neighbourhood" allows these floating communities to bind together at a fine-grained level.

This study sees this information combined with the genetic structure of the bacteria, which has been shown to form complex, globally patterned self-organising networks.

The results propose a geometric view of how solid biofilms operate, and suggest a way to control group size when columns meet up in the form of black bubbles.

"This fundamentally unique property provides a clue to how a colony may spontaneously form," Professor Tel
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