The Traveler’s Guide to Microbial Hitchhiking

How would you get home if you ever got stranded somewhere without a cell phone? If you couldn’t walk home, then your only option would be relying on others to get you there. A recent study, led by Alise Muok at Leiden University, found that this is exactly what an immobile bacteria in the Streptomyces genus does. They hitchhike onto another bacterium that can help them get to their destination

Streptomycetes, which are bacteria found in the Streptomyces genus, produce the vast majority of clinically relevant antibiotics as well as other important compounds that promote plant health. The life cycle of Streptomycetes involves producing structures above ground, which release spores. These spores can be transported far away with the use of insects and nematodes. However, it was unclear how these spores move closer distances such as through the soil to plant roots until this recent study. Researchers found that mobile bacteria in the soil can help move these Streptomycetes spores through the soil to plant roots. The Streptomycetes have a protein called rodlin, which coats the outside of the spore. This protein then binds to the flagella, a whip-like appendage important for bacteria movement. The Streptomycetes spore hitchhikes with the moving bacteria by sticking onto their flagella and moving with the bacteria to go where they need to go in the soil (Fig. 1).

Figure 1: Graphical representation of microbial hitchhiking. The bacterium is green, the flagella are grey, and the Streptomycetes spore is grey.

Just like how you could hitchhike if stranded, these tiny microscopic organisms have the same idea. If they can’t move, they can rely on others to get to their destination. To further understand hitchhiking, researchers can study: 1) how the rodlin protein attaches to the flagella and 2) whether the motile bacteria get any benefits out of “helping” these spores. Ultimately, these Streptomycetes can be very important in an ecosystem and by understanding and leveraging how they move from one place to another, we can improve their spread to different plants and increase crop yield.

Alise Muok is a postdoc in the Institute of Biology at Leiden University in the Netherlands. She is interested in the structure and function of proteins involved specifically in bacterial chemotaxis, or directed motion towards some source.

Managing Correspondent: Jenny Zheng

Press Release: Sciencemag.org

Original Article: The ISME Journal

Image Credits: Flickr

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