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Microbe Warfare:

Bacterial Communication

by Chuck Missler


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There have been some fascinating developments in the fight against disease that also portend some astonishing prophetic perspectives.

Researchers have discovered in recent years that some infectious and potentially lethal bacteria such as E. coli, salmonella and Vibrio cholerae (the bug that causes cholera) exchange messages with one another in order to be dangerous. They are harmless if they can't communicate.

These organisms have developed what researchers call a "bacterial language" - a set of chemical signals that enables them to take a head count, rather like a sergeant calling a platoon's roll. The bacteria don't attack until they sense that their numbers are sufficient.

The messages are hormonelike molecules that certain microbes can send and receive-saying, in effect, "I'm here," and responding, "So am I."

In a recent report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, Bonnie Bassler, a molecular biologist at Princeton University, in Princeton, NJ, said E. coli and salmonella bacteria wait until their numbers reach a critical mass before they start to release the poisonous toxins that have sickened or killed people who ate contaminated food.

Scientists call this bacterial communication system "quorum sensing." That's because it works a bit like a quorum in human society, where it takes a certain minimum number of people to qualify as a meeting in certain kinds of proceedings.

"Quorum sensing enables bacteria to coordinate their behavior, to act like multicellular organisms and to acquire the benefits of cooperative activity," Bassler said. "If bacteria started producing toxins as soon as the infection began, it would be like waving a flag to alert the host's immune system."

Bassler continued, "If the bacteria are in small numbers, they don't stand a chance, but if they wait until they reach high cell densities, then they have a much better chance of establishing an infection."

The phenomenon of signaling molecules was discovered in the 1970s in two sea-dwelling bacteria, Vibrio fischeri and Vibrio harveyi, which emit a blue glow when their population reaches a certain density.

Since then, more than 30 species of bacteria have been found to exchange messages this way. Some talk only to their own kind; others communicate with alien species.

The Battle Against Disease

Battles in the information age involve controlling the enemies' communication systems, as well as gaining adequate assessments of relative strengths.

What king, going to make war against another king, sitteth not down first, and consulteth whether he be able with ten thousand to meet him that cometh against him with twenty thousand? Or else, while the other is yet a great way off, he sendeth an ambassage, and desireth conditions of peace. -Luke 14:31, 32

"Some bacteria both speak and understand a common chemical language," said Jeffrey Stein, chief scientist at Quorex Pharmaceuticals, an experimental drug company in Carlsbad, Calif. Stein likened it to a system of "wireless communication."

Researchers figure they may be able to prevent or cure disease if they can jam the bacterial communication network - say, by blocking the apparatus that receives messages, known as a "receptor" - on the surface of the microbes.

New weapons and tactics to counter infectious microorganisms are becoming crucial, since these little creatures keep developing resistance to existing drugs.

For example, one such microbe, Staphylococcus aureus, resists all but one potent antibiotic, vancomycin, and even that line of defense is crumbling.

"There is a lot of interest in new drugs that turn off that (Staphylococcus) system," said Stein, whose company is working to develop and patent such remedies.

"We're developing compounds that interfere with molecular signaling [by] turning off receptors. This is a new concept, a fundamentally new class of antimicrobial tools."1

This progress in the fight against disease is both encouraging and yet at the same time is also disturbing as we attempt to gain a broader perspective on our prophetic horizon.

The Latest Pandora's Box?

There is a dark side to the emergent technologies that are ushering in the 21st century. These technologies include genetics, nano-technology, and robotics.

The field of genetics has been making grand strides as DNA is becoming better understood, and the human genome is beginning to yield to several mapping efforts.

Nanotechnology is the science of building tiny devices out of individual atoms or molecules; it was first theorized by Nobel Prize winner Richard Feynman in 1959.

Here, too, technologists are beginning to make some impressive progress.

The field of robotics is also the beneficiary of strides in making sentient, programmable devices that can, in some contexts, outperform humans.

By combining robotics with the advances in nanotechnology, one of the goals is to develop molecule-sized machines that are injectable, programmable, and can navigate the human bloodstream.

As these advances combine further with developments in genetics, some are predicting the development of self-replicating machines that can lead to new, unexpected diseases.

It is expected that they may have the ability to be custom-built to attack genetically distinct groups of people, or even specific individuals!

The potential military and social engineering implications are extremely disturbing. As these three areas of pursuit begin to converge, we can begin to see some terrifying possibilities that may prove far more dangerous than the weapons of mass destruction that cast their shadow over the 20th century.

The intense pursuit of these technologies, accelerated by unbridled corporate competition, is proceeding at an alarming pace.

The potential for accidents or abuse is of increasing concern to those who are concerned with the stewardship of our future and that of our grandchildren.

And the bizarre prospects being ushered in by these new technologies may also suggest some radically different perspectives for our Biblical eschatalogical conjectures.

The Prophetic Implications

Among the famed "four horsemen" of the Apocalypse, we find the pale [chloros, green] horse:

And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him. And power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth. -Revelation 6:8

We usually infer that the "beasts of the earth" are of the four-footed kind; we rarely include in our perspective the possibility that they might be microbial.2

Among the end-time prophecies are a number of passages which warn of some really strange maladies:

And there came out of the smoke locusts upon the earth: and unto them was given power, as the scorpions of the earth have power.

And it was commanded them that they should not hurt the grass of the earth, neither any green thing, neither any tree; but only those men which have not the seal of God in their foreheads.

And to them it was given that they should not kill them, but that they should be tormented five months: and their torment was as the torment of a scorpion, when he striketh a man.

And in those days shall men seek death, and shall not find it; and shall desire to die, and death shall flee from them. -Revelation 9:3-6

There are many passages that may take on a different complexion when viewed from the vantage point of the current technological revolution in genetics, nano-technologies, and robotics.

The potential Bibilical implications are so provocative that they will be the subject of further articles in the forthcoming issues of our news journal.

Stay tuned. Film at eleven.

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  1. Much of this article was excerpted from "Scientists Attack Germ Enigma," Robert S. Boyd, Knight Ridder, q.v., Spokane Spokesman-Review , Sept. 19, 2000.
  2. For a deeper discussion of the possibilities, see our briefing pack, Behold A Pale Horse , which includes a discussion of contemporary bacterial and other forms of warfare, and their Biblical implications.

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