Insights into how bacteria "talk" to each other could help scientists halt their growing resistance to antibiotics.
A new study has revealed that bacteria use a form of communication similar to human language, but employing chemical signals instead of words.
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This language enables bacteria to thrive and researchers hope that by interpreting it they can develop new drugs to fight infections without bacteria developing a resistance to them.
Scientists say the number of dangerous bacteria becoming resistant to antibiotics is growing, posing a serious threat to human health.
Infections that are currently manageable could become life-threatening without effective drugs.
Researchers at Edinburgh University found that bacteria recognise their physical and social environment by producing and responding to chemical compounds which act as messages.
The team found that bacteria responded differently to a combination of two messages than they did to either by itself.
Until recently, only humans and other primates were known to engage in this form of dialogue, known as combinatorial communication, in which signals can have different meanings depending on their context.
Researchers say that most remedies for infections simply block all talk between bacteria, but these can drastically alter the way they act and aid the survival of resistant strains.
It is thought that more subtle interventions, only blocking specific signals that can harm people, may be equally effective at treating infections without leading to resistance.
Dr Sam Brown, from the university's school of biological sciences, said: "We're only beginning to scratch the surface of the complexity of bacterial social life and its consequences for disease.
"Decoding their language is an important step towards placing our own communication in a broader biological context, as well as opening a new front in the search for mechanisms to control infections. "
The study, a collaboration with Nottingham and Durham universities, has been published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.