Grant will help Balasubramaniam bring bacteria online

Computer Science

Victoria Grdina, October 18, 2023

Grant will help Balasubramaniam bring bacteria online

As new threats to global environments and health continue to emerge and evolve, developing a better understanding of bacterial species has become more vital than ever.

University of Nebraska–Lincoln computer scientist Sasitharan Balasubramaniam and colleagues in Ireland will collaborate on a new research initiative to study microbial communication and activity patterns by connecting living bacteria to a “digital twin.”

In an interdisciplinary and global partnership supported by the National Science Foundation, researchers from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, the Tyndall National Institute in the Republic of Ireland and Ulster University in Northern Ireland will collaborate to study microbial communication and activity patterns by connecting living bacteria to its digital twin. Balasubramaniam, associate professor in the School of Computing, is the principal investigator for this research collaboration. NSF will fund Nebraska at a value of $399,970, while TNI will receive €343,968 from Science Foundation Ireland and UU will receive £299,994 from Department of Economy, Northern Ireland.

By learning how bacteria communicate as they evolve, scientists will be able to better understand and predict their behavior, ultimately helping them develop appropriate strategies to prevent harmful impact.

Researchers in Ireland will use electrochemical sensors and engineered biosensors to collect data and monitor bacterial communication signals in real-time. The signals and data will be transmitted to the Holland Computing Center supercomputers to create a “digital twin” counterpart of the bacteria, which Balasubramaniam and his team will use to simulate and predict the evolution of bacterial conversations and behavior.

“What’s really amazing is they have a very sophisticated social structure,” Balasubramaniam said. “They will have conversations not only with their own species, but also other species as well.”

Balasubramaniam said bacteria are very similar to humans in that they are able to learn and benefit through communication and interaction with others.

“This mix of population is kind of like how diversity of human population enhances our goals in society,” he said. “We share new knowledge, and we’re introduced to new people and cultures. They also have these complex conversations when they’re talking with different species, and it allows them to maintain a nice balance.”

According to Balasubramaniam, dangerous outcomes occur when harmful bacteria begin mixing with the rest of the population and disrupting the balance of their social structure. To better understand the development of these disturbances, the team will conduct case studies of live bacterial conversations in two vastly different environments: chronic wounds and soil microbiomes.

Social balance and bacterial diversity play a particularly important role in wound healing, which is often disrupted by one or two bacterial strains dominating the wound environment. Very little is currently known on how these predominant species converse, but studying and simulating their communication patterns through the digital twin could help scientists develop prophylactic solutions.

“Sometimes a foreign bacteria comes in and triggers the infection, but before it does that, there’s quite a deep conversation they have amongst each other,” Balasubramaniam said. “So we want to know what they’re saying before we treat that infection, because if you know what they’re saying, you might be able to give the right treatment before the infection starts.”

The case study of soil microbiomes will also help researchers understand how external elements can impact the natural bacteria environments. Not only do factors like nutrient supplies play a major role in fluctuating stability, but the introduction of new species can present even greater challenges. The use of organic manure for fertilization could induce the transfer antibiotic resistance genes. Understanding bacterial response to such events could issue warnings to farmers and help the improve their land management practices.

Additional factors that develop and evolve over a long-term period, such as climate change, also key play a key role in microbial population dynamics. While scientists can study bacteria through methods like sampling, Balasubramaniam explains this only captures “a snapshot” of bacteria in a singular moment and does not account for ongoing changes. By instead tracking bacteria in real-time over an extended period, researchers will be able to observe and predict evolving patterns within multiple microbial ecosystems and better understand how they can intervene or restore balance.

Balasubramaniam said he hopes that the project continues to expand and eventually scientists will be able to observe bacteria social habits as easily as humans.

“I don’t know if it’s possible, but in the long run, it could be a lot like us using social media,” he said. “If bacteria could, they could share their experiences, it goes over the internet, and we can monitor it. And who knows? They might even share their experience with bacteria in Ireland from Nebraska.”

Computer Science