A new study has suggested bacteria use a form of communication similar to human language.
The process, which involves chemical signals instead of words, allows the bacteria to thrive, according to Edinburgh University researchers.
They said insights into how bacteria "talk" to each other may help experts halt their growing resistance to antibiotics.
By interpreting the language they hope to find new drugs to fight infections.
'Decoding their language'
The scientists said 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.
The Edinburgh University researchers found bacteria recognised their physical and social environment by producing and responding to chemical compounds which act as messages.
The team found 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 said most remedies for infections block all talk between bacteria, but these can drastically alter the way they act and aid the survival of resistant strains.
It is thought 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.