Using Harpoon-Like Appendages, Bacteria ‘Fish’ for New DNA

Two bacteria are sitting near free-floating DNA. Suddenly, one bacterium shoots out a long appendage, latches onto a DNA fragment and reels in its catch. It happens fast, but it’s clear: this organism had just gone fishing.

Biologists at Indiana University recently captured this maneuver on camera for the first time.

Their findings, published Monday in the journal Nature Microbiology, verify the existence of a harpoon-like mechanism that scientists have been piecing together for decades.

The work also advances understanding of how bacteria take up DNA from their surroundings, which is called natural transformation. That process is key to the spread of antibiotic resistance, which has made bacterial illnesses increasingly difficult to treat with conventional drugs. Each year an estimated two million Americans become infected with antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

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