A group of physicists from Northeastern University have found that bacteria may be using radio waves to communicate with each other, says 80beats' Veronique Greenwood. It's been thought that bacteria use high-frequency waves to communicate with each other and perform other functions, and Nobel Prize-winning researcher Luc Montagnier published a paper in 2009 on the measurement of bacterial radio waves, Greenwood says. As Montagnier has also championed other controversial fields like homeopathy, many scientists were skeptical about his work on bateria. Montagnier further alienated his colleagues when he began writing about "descriptions of signals causing loose pieces of DNA to assemble into bacterialike structures" and speculating about "related 'nanostructures' in water, which he linked to neurodegenerative diseases," says Wired's Brandon Keim. And until now, critics of this controversial way of thinking about bacteria have argued that they don't have a mechanism to generate radio waves, the arXiv blog's KFC adds. This new research, however, could change that. Human chromosomes are long strings of DNA, but bacterial chromosomes are shaped like loops, and free electrons travel from atom to atom around these loops and jump between several discrete energy states, Greenwood says. The Northeastern physicists, who posted their paper on arXiv, calculate that "the transition frequencies of these jumps would be 0.5, 1, and 1.5 kilohertz. ... In other words, the radio signals could be a result of the quantum nature of electrons and the structure of bacterial DNA," she adds. As Keim says, "Chromosomes could act like antennae, with electrons traveling gene circuits to produce species-specific wavelengths." A lot more work needs to be done to prove this idea, as well as work to determine what the radio signals actually mean. "What are the bacteria saying? Are they talking to themselves, or others? Or are the signals just the kind of biological flotsam that appears from time to time in evolved creatures — no real purpose, but no threat to reproduction, and hence still hanging around?" Greenwood asks.
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Apr 26, 2011