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How Fungi and Bacteria Communicate via Terpenes

Much like groves of Aspen trees, connected underground by their roots, are able to communicate with one another, tiny, microscopic organisms manage to do the same. Though fungi and bacteria don’t have the interconnected roots, they do have something that helps them communicate. Terpenes -- the tiny compounds responsible for the pungent odors of plants and even some insects around the world -- also help their hosts identify, communicate, and recognize one another in the wild. Here’s the latest on the scientific discovery.

Terpenes help fungi and bacteria communicate

terpenes in communication

Terpenes for communication -- it seems far out there, but it has been happening for millions of years. It could be said that when it comes to communication, terpenes represent the most popular language on planet earth. We’ve known for years that plants and insects utilized terpenes for immediate and long distance communication, but we’ve only just recently seen just how widespread this chemical communication system truly is. There is another, much larger group of ‘Terpene Speakers’ literally just beneath our feet. Micro-organisms!

We’re only beginning to understand the degree to which terpenes are used in communication systems between living organisms all over the planet.

Back in April of 2017, Science Daily published a report from researchers at the Netherlands Institute of Ecology, which had undertaken a massive study of how bacteria and fungi are able to communicate. Their findings determined that they use terpenes to “talk” back and forth between one another, conveying survival-based knowledge like threat identification and safety concerns, through the terpene-facilitated scents emanating from their beings.

Research by microbial ecologists from NIOO and their colleagues has demonstrated that two very different groups of microorganisms use fragrances to communicate with each other, the most common type being terpenes,” the report found.

No matter how off-guard this information may have caught you, it really doesn’t seem that far-fetched if you stop to think about it. You likely recognize the aroma of those close to you before you speak or even see them in some cases.

Maybe it’s the cologne your significant other wears or that pungent smell of cigarettes in the car of a friend. It could be something as notorious as the lunch a roommate stuffs into his backpack early in the morning as he leaves for work.

In this case, it’s not the quality of the smell that matters (whether you smell like roses or cheeseburgers or sweat). What’s important is the information these aromas convey and the connections and associations our brain makes with them. This is how we use scent as a property of identification all the time, in our everyday lives.

The smell of smoke can guide you to a bbq or alert you to danger; certain scents can make you hungry, others suppress appetite; certainly you’ve stepped into a friends home and been immediately struck by how different it smells from your own; and how often have you used the smell of an item in your fridge as a gauge for goodness?

We use scent, odor and fragrance as chemical indicators of our environment every day!

And our tiny microbial friends aren’t that different. At least not in this way.

Their conversations tend to be community-based

terpenes in communication

The report went even further, noting that because fungi and bacteria (particularly bacteria) often live in such high density -- billions of microorganisms in one gram of soil (Science Daily)-- there are often many ‘smelly voices’ operating at once.

The fungi and bacteria are able to respond to each other through their terpenes. They likely have conversations involving more than one takeaway (such as a shift in the climate), and actually use the information they receive to thrive in their environment.

If this has you wondering what message you’re sending when you spray a bit of perfume on before heading out for a night on the town, you certainly aren’t alone.

“Terpenes act as pheromones -- chemical signals used by animals -- which makes them a regular ingredient of perfumes,” Science Daily reported. “So it's likely that the language of terpenes forms a vast chemical communications network indeed.”

Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on circumstance), those hanging out at the local bar likely don’t fully comprehend the terpenic message you’re sending.

It is highly likely that many more living organisms communicate via terpenes

This particular study was rather limited -- only fungi and bacteria were involved. But terpenes are found on living things all over the world, likely including thousands that have never been studied in this way with such precision. Perhaps some of them, too, send important messages through their odors.

And, with all of this newfound knowledge, the report left us wondering what other life forms on this beautiful planet of ours communicate through their aroma that we haven’t even heard of! National Geographic reported that it is likely that mankind has only discovered and chronicled 14% of the living organisms on Earth. As the science around terpenes continues to progress, we likely have a lot of major discoveries looming on the horizon.

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