IBEC internal collaboration succeeds in measuring bacterial cell response to electrical fields

Two groups working together at IBEC demonstrate the potential of electrical studies of single bacterial cells in a paper published in ACS Nano.

Gabriel Gomila’s Nanoscale Bioelectrical Characterization group and that of Antonio Juárez, Microbial Biotechnology and Host-pathogen Interaction, combined their expertise on microscopic electrical measurements and bacteria respectively to come up with a way to study the response to external electrical fields of just a single bacterial cell.

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Being able to measure the electric polarizability – which indicates how it reacts to an external electric field – of a single bacterial cell can shed light on the biochemical constituents of the bacterium, as well as on their internal structure, thus opening new possibilities for analytical studies and new explorations to evaluate their critical biological properties, such as adhesion, virulence or viability.

The researchers used quantitative electrostatic force microscopy (EFM) in their study, a technique that they recently developed and successfully applied to measure the electrical properties of 3D nano-objects such as nanoparticles and viruses. EFM senses the electrical properties of the whole bacterial cell, including its cytoplasmatic region, and so is able to provide a wealth of information on a bacterium’s electrical response.

In this way, the researchers quantified the electric polarization response of four bacterial types – Lactobacilus sakei, Salmonella Typhimurium, Escherchia coli and Listeria innocua, all of which are of either clinical or industrial relevance – and revealed important differences between Gram-negative and Gram-positive bacteria.

Previous electrical studies – which until now have only been able to be done on bacterial populations involving millions of bacterial cells, and not on single cells – have allowed researchers to detect bacteria in an environment, count and differentiate them, determine their viability, distinguish mutants even among highly similar genotypes, and separate them from other cells. The fact that this new technique allows the measurement of the electrical properties of single cells without the need for separation enables the heterogeneity within a population to be accurately quantified.

Reference article: Daniel Esteban-Ferrer, Martin A. Edwards, Laura Fumagalli, Antonio Juárez, and Gabriel Gomila (2014). Electric Polarization Properties of Single Bacteria Measured with Electrostatic Force Microscopy. ACS Nano, 8 (10), pp 9843–9849