Esther Broset wants to know if bacteria can hear

Understanding if bacteria can hear could unlock completely new tools for curing diseases and creating medicines. That is why Research Pitching Competition 2019 finalist Esther Broset for the University of Pennsylvania wants to expose bacteria to soundwaves and see what happens. 


Your idea is about investigating if bacteria can hear. Where did this idea come from?

I attended a seminar about how bacteria sense and produce light so I wondered if bacteria could also hear? I was surprised to find out that we do not yet know if this is possible so I decided to start studying it myself. I envision engineering bacteria to respond to sound so that for example gene expression could be modulated precisely by applying specific sound waves. 

Why is this idea important right now?

If we would understand the molecular behavior of the sense of hearing in bacteria, this would unlock completely new tools aimed at curing diseases and creating new medicines. Soundwaves are cheaper and are less affected by diffusion than their chemical counterparts are and thus have the advantage of being able to cross a wide range of materials. This means that we could activate the delivery of medicines from a distance. My overarching goal is to encode molecules that sense sound together with medicines inside the genome of probiotics, administer to a patient the sound responsive probiotic in a pill and activate the medicine delivery on demand and in real time.

What motivated you to become a researcher?

I have been a researcher since I was a child. I remember always asking my mum if there was something I could repair or fix. I always wanted to know how the things worked and to solve problems. In high school I got very interested in biology and became motivated to cure diseases. Now after understanding what bacteria can do, I would like to see disease such as infections cured by good bacteria. 

You will pitch this idea at Slush in front of some thousands of people. What got you interested in this Research Pitching Competition?

The philosophy of the Skolar competition is that the idea is what matters. This is the philosophy that I follow in my scientific career. Unfortunately, today, in order to obtain a postdoctoral fellowship, high-risk high-reward projects, such as this one, are often difficult to obtain. I am excited to also share my science and ideas with society as a whole, and about getting on the stage! 

Esther’s wild idea: 

We know that bacteria can perform human-like action such as seeing (by catching photons from light), smelling and tasting (both by recognizing molecules from the environment) or even are capable of touching (by physical changes in the surface of its cell envelope). But, can bacterial also listen? This remains unknown. Enabled by potent microphones, we know that bacteria generate sounds. Does this means these organisms can “speak” and “listen”? We propose to investigate this previously unexplored question and to elucidate the processes that enable this to happen. To test this, we will subject bacteria under frequencies in the audible spectrum and analyze which endogenous molecules (i.e., internal response) change as a response to these frequencies relative to bacteria exposed to silence. Up to this point, we will be able to describe how bacteria sense sounds but our intention is to go further. We will take advantage of the identified sound-sensing molecules to activate medicine deployment by bacteria. Soundwaves are less affected by diffusion than their chemical counterparts are and thus have the advantage of being able to cross a wide range of materials, meaning that we could activate medicine delivery from a distance. Our overarching goal is to encode medicines and the molecule that sense the sound inside the genome of beneficial bacteria named probiotic, administer the sound responsive probiotic and activate the medicine delivery on demand.

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