Discovering how bacteria swim may help in delivering life-saving medicines throughout the body

MINNEAPOLIS – The world is one step closer to producing bacterial medical assistants. Once thought of as science fiction, researchers have found how bacteria swim through different fluids and environments, making them perfect for delivering life-saving drugs to all areas of the body.

Bacterial swimming is a concept scientists have grappled with since the 1960s. Previous research suggests bacteria are athletic swimmers as they’re able to swim fast in thick polymer solutions than in water. One idea behind their fast swimming technique in fluids made up of long chain-like molecules is that bacteria can swim through the network formed by chain molecules and stretch the chains to help their propulsion.

For the current study, the team from the University of Minnesota came up with the hypothesis that the drag created from passing by particles pushes bacterial “tails,” called flagella, to spin and propel them forward when swimming.

“People have been fascinated by the swimming of bacteria ever since the invention of microscopes in the 17th century, but until now, the understanding was mostly limited to simple liquids like water,” explains Shashank Kamdar, lead author on the paper and a University of Minnesota chemical engineering graduate student, in a media release. “But it is still an open question as to how bacteria are moving in real-life situations, like through soil and fluids in their own habitats.”

The team suggests bacteria moving through complex environments could help scientists design treatments for diseases using bacteria as vessels for delivering medicines.

“For example, a certain type of bacteria causes stomach ulcers. Stomach lining is a viscous environment, so studying how the bacteria move in these environments is important to understanding how the disease spreads,” says Xiang Cheng, senior author on the paper and an associate professor in the university’s Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science.

The study is published in the journal Nature.


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About the Author

Jocelyn Solis-Moreira

Jocelyn is a New York-based science journalist whose work has appeared in Discover Magazine, Health, and Live Science, among other publications. She holds a Master’s of Science in Psychology with a concentration in behavioral neuroscience and a Bachelor’s of Science in integrative neuroscience from Binghamton University. Jocelyn has reported on several medical and science topics ranging from coronavirus news to the latest findings in women’s health.

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