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Chemical Reaction: Talking Germs

By: Steve Herman
Posted: August 7, 2007, from the August 2007 issue of GCI Magazine.

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The arachidonic cascade3 can be considered a form of communication, signalling irritation involving an acronym-rich region inhabited by IL-1, PGH2 and 15-HPETE. Since preventing or minimizing irritation is an essential goal of skin treatment, understanding the role of each component contributes a vital piece of the puzzle. Given the nature of a cascade, like a chain reaction setting off an atomic bomb, it is best to focus attention at the early components of the process.

The irritation cascade can be manipulated by inserting antagonists to select signaling molecules. Improvement can be measured in changes to mRNA and protein molecules. An efficacious treatment product could be defined as a signal modulator that encourages desired processes or interrupts an undesirable cascade.

Biofilms are perhaps the best known example of behavior by microorganisms that requires communication. A biofilm is held together by a matrix that protects the cells and facilitates communication through biochemical signals. Some biofilms contain water channels that help disperse signaling molecules. One benefit of this environment is increased resistance to detergents, as the dense matrix and outer layer of cells protects the interior of the community.  It is also clear that communication in biofilms has importance for cosmetics.

Quorum sensing isn’t going to result in new products for personal care, at least in the near term. But it vividly remind us that communication is a series of connections that begin with cells signaling their mRNA to respond to a need, illustrating that chemical communication evolves into something even more complex, such as human language. It is by recognizing these connections that we understand the living world, in turn fueling creativity in the lab and the marketplace.


  1. (Accessed on Jun 4, 2007)
  2. ME Taga and BL Bassler, Chemical communication among bacteria, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 100 2, 14549–14554 (Nov 2003)
  3. S Herman, Arachidonic what?, GCI, 46 (Feb 2000)
  4. S Herman, Bright idea for cosmetics, GCI, 52 (Aug 2005)
  5. JA Freeman and BL Bassler, Sequence and function of LuxU: a two-component phosphorelay protein that regulates quorum sensing in Vibrio harveyi, J Bact, 899–906 (Feb 1999)