British scientists have detected bacteria in the act of passing information to each other - even when separated by a plastic wall.
Mathematical physicist Alan Parsons and biologist Richard Heal, work for QinetiQ - formerly the Ministry of Defence science laboratory - at Winfrith in Dorset. They report in the Journal of Applied Microbiology that they grew separated colonies of bacteria, one in an ordinary nutrient, one in a dish of food that had been spiked with antibiotic.
At first, the medicinally-treated bacteria began to die. If they were totally sealed off from the healthy bacteria next door, they would all die. But if there was a small gap through which air could pass between the two colonies, the ailing bacteria would recover.
The only conclusion could be that the healthy, stable bacteria next door were sending their stricken cousins some kind of survival advice - in the form of information about antibiotic resistance.
"If these unstressed bacteria are present then we find that the bacteria that are attacked by the antibiotic actually do not die. A large proportion of them survive and they begin to recover," Professor Parsons said.
"It happens in a few hours. We first discovered this a year ago and have done a great many controlled tests to throw out other possibilities."
If confirmed in experiments with the kind of infectious bacteria that spread pneumonia or blood poisoning, or other life threatening illnesses, the discovery could have profound consequences.