Intercellular nanotubes mediate bacterial communication

Cell. 2011 Feb 18;144(4):590-600. doi: 10.1016/j.cell.2011.01.015.


Bacteria are known to communicate primarily via secreted extracellular factors. Here we identify a previously uncharacterized type of bacterial communication mediated by nanotubes that bridge neighboring cells. Using Bacillus subtilis as a model organism, we visualized transfer of cytoplasmic fluorescent molecules between adjacent cells. Additionally, by coculturing strains harboring different antibiotic resistance genes, we demonstrated that molecular exchange enables cells to transiently acquire nonhereditary resistance. Furthermore, nonconjugative plasmids could be transferred from one cell to another, thereby conferring hereditary features to recipient cells. Electron microscopy revealed the existence of variously sized tubular extensions bridging neighboring cells, serving as a route for exchange of intracellular molecules. These nanotubes also formed in an interspecies manner, between B. subtilis and Staphylococcus aureus, and even between B. subtilis and the evolutionary distant bacterium Escherichia coli. We propose that nanotubes represent a major form of bacterial communication in nature, providing a network for exchange of cellular molecules within and between species.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Anti-Bacterial Agents / metabolism
  • Bacillus subtilis / metabolism*
  • Bacillus subtilis / ultrastructure*
  • Bacterial Physiological Phenomena
  • Cytoplasm / metabolism
  • Microscopy, Electron, Scanning
  • Nanotubes
  • Plasmids / metabolism
  • Staphylococcus aureus / metabolism


  • Anti-Bacterial Agents