Bacteria exhibit remarkable abilities to organize and adapt themselves in dynamic environments; however, relatively few quantitative techniques exist for studying bacterial behavior. Their small size (sub-micrometer dimensions) and motility (several body lengths per second) presents unique challenges. New tools and methods must be developed to gain a better understanding of the chemical and physical micro-environments that bacterial cells respond to and create.
Bacterial cells secret hundreds of different molecules as part of their natural processes. These molecules range from quorum sensing molecules or pheromones for communication, to siderophores as nutrient scavengers, to virulence factors that attack intruders. In the first part of this talk, I will describe the development of electrochemical sensors for detecting chemicals secreted by bacterial cells. The technology is being commercialized to provide rapid identification of bacterial infection at point-of-care.
The vast majority of bacterial species in environment as well as inside of our bodies have never been isolated and studied in a laboratory. While ‘omic techniques are providing incredible insight about microbial populations, individual functions and interactions remain largely unknown. In the second part of the talk, I will present a simple microfabricated device that allows cells to be isolated and cultured in their natural environments. These devices are being used to create libraries of high-density pure bacterial cultures that can be screened for production of novel compounds and metabolic processes.