A single-cell imaging screen reveals multiple effects of secreted small molecules on bacteria.
Bacteria cells exist in close proximity to other cells of both the same and different species. Bacteria secrete a large number of different chemical species, and the local concentrations of these compounds at the surfaces of nearby cells may reach very high levels. It is fascinating to imagine how individual cells might sense and respond to the complex mix of signals at their surface. However, it is difficult to measure exactly what the local environmental composition looks like, or what the effects of individual compounds on nearby cells are. Here, an electron microscopy imaging screen was designed that would detect morphological changes induced by secreted small molecules. This differs from conventional approaches by detecting structural changes in individual cells rather than gene expression or growth rate changes at the population level. For example, one of the changes detected here was an increase in outer membrane vesicle production, which does not necessarily correspond to a change in gene expression. This initial study focussed on Pseudomonas aeruginosa, Escherichia coli, and Burkholderia dolosa, and revealed an intriguing range of effects of secreted small molecules on cells both within and between species.