Scientists have known of microbes’ ability to have memories for some time now, but lately it has been discovered that microbes are encoding memorable data at a much faster rate than ever before. As interesting as this discovery is, what does it mean? Let’s take a look back at the beginning for some answers on how bacteria have memories and what it means.

The History of Microbial Memory Studies

For over 40 years, researchers have investigated the process of how bacteria gain knowledge of an environment and somehow act in a certain way. The earliest observations were based on gradients of chemicals. Depending on the concentration available, a finite number of functions were automatically initiated. This led to the discovery of more complex mechanisms in which bacteria changed their genetic code in response to a known environmental stimulus.

In 2016, the Swiss Institute of Technology conducted a study on a type of micro bacteria to test their memory skills. The researchers tested the memory of Caulobacter crescentus cells, a bacteria which is present in fresh water lakes and streams. They found that when cells are exposed to a moderate concentration of salt, they are better able to survive subsequent exposure to a higher concentration of salt. In individual cells, the effect is short-lived; they only remember the salty water for 30 minutes before forgetting the experience. But when the scientists observed an entire population of the bacteria, they appeared to develop a longer, collective memory.

The Future of Microbial Memory and What It’s Capable Of

During the discoveries of microbes’ advancing ability to encode memories and adapt to certain environments and situations much faster, there are theories of what kind of impact this will have on the future of science. Although these experiments may not seem like much, the results could lead to new advances in bio-weapons or chemical warfare. During cell reproduction and memory encoding, it’s been found that cells were able to evolve and resist certain intruding bacteria or viruses. In the results of the study, it is mentioned that there were experiments in which certain viruses were exposed to the cells that encouraged them to adapt and evolve to survive future attacks if necessary.

In bio-weaponry, this could mean a faster reproduction of cells that are able to defend themselves against viruses meant to kill them, or on the other hand, they could also become more susceptible to harmful viruses. There was also evidence of the cells taking on the wrong DNA when mutating. According to Robert Heler, one of the experiments’ authors, “Although the system defends cells, it can sometimes misfire by acquiring DNA snippets from its host rather than from an invading virus, leading the cell to kill itself.”

Should We Be Worried That Bacteria Have Memories?

Not really. What we have found with many scientific discoveries over the history of recorded data is that there are many things in this world that are used to better our future, but can also be used to destroy it if used in a different way. This is not foreign information. Hopefully further experimentation and information on this growing discovery lead to good uses in medicine and technology, not further destruction by being used for advances in warfare.


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