Jun. 23 –  Bacteria can anticipate and prepare for a future event, according to new research from the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot. In a paper that appeared in Nature, Prof. Yitzhak Pilpel from the institute’s Molecular Genetics Department and colleagues at Tel Aviv University, examined microorganisms living in environments that change in predictable ways. Their findings show that these microorganisms’ genetic networks are hard-wired to ‘foresee’ what comes next in the sequence of events and begin responding to the new state of affairs before its onset. E. coli bacteria, for instance, which normally cruise harmlessly down the digestive tract, encounter a number of different environments on their way. In particular, they find that one type of sugar – lactose – is invariably followed by a second sugar – maltose. Pilpel and his team checked the bacterium?s genetic response to lactose, and found that, in addition to the genes that enable it to digest lactose, the gene network for utilizing maltose was partially activated. When they switched the order of the sugars, giving the bacteria maltose first, there was no corresponding activation of lactose genes, implying that bacteria have naturally ‘learned’ to get ready for a serving of maltose after a lactose appetizer. Pilpel and his team believe that genetic conditioned response may be a widespread means of evolutionary adaptation that enhances survival in many organisms – including possibly humans. These findings could have practical implications. Genetically engineered microorganisms for fermenting plant materials to produce biofuels, for example, might work more efficiently if they gained the genetic ability to prepare themselves for the next step in the process.