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"A Gut Reaction" -- The Discovery Files

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To harness bacteria for use in medicine or industry, or just to better understand how they thrive and spread, it's helpful to determine the consistency of their actions over time. That's where the math comes in. Georgia Tech researchers applied to the bacteria existing physics equations developed to precisely describe the interactions of atoms and molecules.

Credit: NSF/Karson Productions

Audio Transcript:

Clash of strains.

I'm Bob Karson with the Discovery Files from the National Science Foundation.

Inside all of us are billions of bacteria. Clans of microbes, fighting it out on the bacterial battlefield.

To help get a handle on bacterial behavior, scientists at Georgia Tech are turning to math. They have taken physics equations that describe interactions of molecules and applied them to bacteria. In this case to predict the action between two opposing strains of cholera.

The two armies are at war over sustenance and turf. Each bacterium sporting one or more spear-like appendages, covered in a poison. Harpooned by one of these, the enemy ruptures and bursts like a water balloon.

To the researchers, the goal wasn't to predict who will win, but rather, are the bacteria's battlefield actions predictable each time the enemies meet?

Turns out the answer is yes -- bacterial interaction is almost as calculable as chemical reactions.

The scientists say perhaps someday specially-engineered assassin bacteria could work in the human gut -- targeting harmful bacteria while sparing microbes that keep us healthy. A selective, living antibiotic -- unlike today's antibiotics, that vanquish good and bad guys alike.

You will not need math to determine the gut-wrenching impact of the double stuffed, crunch-wrapped slammerito I had for lunch.

"The discovery files" covers projects funded by the government's National Science Foundation. Federally sponsored research -- brought to you, by you! Learn more at or on our podcast.

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