Chemists from West Virginia University and the University of Leeds have discovered how molecules share information to perform like clockwork, paving the way for understanding what triggers bacteria and other microorganisms to communicate.

The researchers reported in a recent issue of Science that they were able to observe microscopic particles signal one another simultaneously once they reached a certain population density.

The synchronization of rhythmic activity, such as the firing of neurons, is of vital importance in living systems and requires communication,said Ken Showalter , one of the researchers and a professor in the C. Eugene Bennett Department of Chemistry at WVU .

An example is bacteria, which are everywhere and which we now know communicate,Showalter added.Some bacteria are bad while others are good. Learning how bacteria communicate is important in developing strategies for how to reduce the number of bad bacteria in a given environment and increase the good ones.

The researchersarticle, Dynamical Quorum Sensing and Synchronization in Large Populations of Chemical Oscillators, is also online at http://www.sciencemag.org/archive/ (click on Jan. 30 issue and scroll down to reports). Science is a journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

The articles co-authors are Mark Tinsley , a research assistant professor at WVU ; WVU chemistry graduate students Fang Wang and Zhaoyang Huang ; and Annette Taylor , a lecturer and senior research fellow at the University of Leeds in the United Kingdom.

The chemistswork was motivated by previous research on yeast cells, bioluminescent bacteria in squids and bacteria-formed biofilm that can collect on boat hulls and in the lungs.

Their experiments involved creating particles that could be oscillatoryrhythmically active like a heartbeator inactive, Showalter explained. They added a catalyst to the particles to make them capable of activity and placed them in a catalyst-free solution.

The particles were inactive at low densities but suddenly began oscillating in perfect synchrony when they reached a critical densitya phenomenon called dynamical quorum sensing, Showalter said. The particles oscillated from red to blue when they became active.

This is similar to what bacteria do,he added.They are quiescent until they reach a critical density, and then they switch to a new behavior, such as biofilm formation.

Showalter said the research is one piece of a puzzle that other scientists can build on.

We are now able to look at the mechanism, identify what signaling molecules there are and see how the particles switch from one behavior to another when they reach a critical density,he said.Hopefully, our work will help push this field of research forward.

Showalter, who joined WVU in 1978, is the C. Eugene Bennett Chair in Chemistry in the Universitys Eberly College of Arts and Sciences . This is the fourth article he has published in Science, and he has also written four articles that have appeared in the British journal Nature.

Tinsley joined the WVU chemistry faculty in 2003.