If Bacteria Can Do It?

By H. Steven Wiley If Bacteria Can Do It… Learning community skills from microbes Andrzej Krauze One of the greatest joys of being a scientist is continuously having the opportunity to see the world in new ways. At a national laboratory or research university, you’re exposed to many different fields of research, from which you can always glean something useful. My current fascination is learning about microbial communities and how they thrive by achi

By | May 1, 2011

If Bacteria Can Do It…

Learning community skills from microbes

Andrzej Krauze

One of the greatest joys of being a scientist is continuously having the opportunity to see the world in new ways. At a national laboratory or research university, you’re exposed to many different fields of research, from which you can always glean something useful. My current fascination is learning about microbial communities and how they thrive by achieving just the right balance between cooperation and competition.

My training is in biochemistry and cell biology, but I was exposed to medical microbiology during a stint as a faculty member in a medical school. There my view of microbes was tainted by the perspective of my colleagues, who saw them either as pathogens or as opportunistic organisms that contaminated tissue-culture plates. My view of cell communities, conversely, came from my research in cancer biology, where I saw the cooperative cell assemblies of normal tissues as driven by genetic programming. Without this enforced cooperation, cells would become selfish, dooming the organism to death by cancer.

This was a simplistic view, based on the idea that natural selection only operates at the level of the individual. A more nuanced appreciation of evolutionary theory reveals that a behavior such as altruism can benefit genetic lineages even when it does so at the expense of the individual. Still, my bias remained that cooperation was something genetically encoded. Then I learned about microbial communities and what they can teach us about thriving within constraints.

Numerically and by biomass, bacteria are the most successful organisms on Earth. Much of this success is due to their small size and relative simplicity, which allows for fast reproduction and correspondingly rapid evolution. But the price of small size and rapid growth is having a small genome, which constrains the diversity of metabolic functions that a single microbe can have. Thus, bacteria tend to be specialized for using just a few substrates. So how can simple bacteria thrive in a complex environment? By cooperating—a cooperation driven by need.

Bacteria rarely live in a given ecological niche by themselves. Instead, they exist in communities in which one bacterial species generates as waste the substrates another species needs to survive. Their waste products are used, in turn, by other bacterial species in a complex food chain. Survival requires balancing the needs of the individual with the well-being of the group, both within and across species. How this balancing act is orchestrated can be fascinating to explore as the relative roles of cooperation, opportunism, parasitism and competition change with alterations in available resources.

The dynamics of microbial behavior are not just a great demonstration of how the laws of natural selection work and how they depend on the nature of both selective pressures and environmental constraints. Microbial communities also demonstrate important nongenetic principles of cooperation. And herein lie lessons that scientists can emulate.

To be successful, scientists must be able to compete not only for funding, but for important research topics that will give them visibility and attract good students. In the earlier days of biology, questions were more general, making it easier to keep up with broad fields and to exploit novel research findings as they arose. As the nature of our work has become more complex and the amount of biological information has exploded, we have necessarily become more specialized. There is only so much information each of us can handle.

With specialization has come an increasing dependence on other specialized biologists to provide us with needed data and to support our submitted papers and grants. At the same time, resources have become scarcer, and we find ourselves competing with the same scientists on whom we are becoming dependent. Thus, it is necessary to find a balance between cooperation and competition in order to survive, and perhaps even to thrive.

The composition of microbial communities is driven by both the interaction of different species and external environmental factors that determine resource availability. Scientists want to learn the rules governing these complex relationships so they can reengineer bacterial communities for the production of useful substances, or for bioremediation. Perhaps as we learn the optimal strategies that microbial communities use to work together effectively, we will gain insights into how we can better work together as a community of scientists.

H. Steven Wiley is lead biologist for the Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.


May 5, 2011

Thank you for an important insight. Understanding how complex bacterial communities achieve their dynamic heterostasis is the trick. It certainly isn't conscious, though maybe there are biochemical markers that pass for "consciousness" at the bacterial scale.\n\nPerhaps the observed cooperation/competition is simply emergent behavior arising from the complexity of the organismic mix? If so, a consciously-engineered human strategy for emulation might be doomed, since it's probably impossible to out-think emergent behavior that arises from self-organized criticality.


Posts: 2

May 6, 2011

Thank you for seeing and presenting the issue from this perspective. This a great lesson for all self centered and exclusive researchers in d bioscience. .... What is lacking: love and balance. ...We are far more better than microbes and a wise can learn even from smaller life forms, so ..... "WORK TOGETHER AND ACHIEVE BETTER"
Avatar of: Lon Jones

Lon Jones

Posts: 17

May 6, 2011

Challenging questions. Combine them with Paul Ewald's challenges of learning to tame bacteria by blocking their transmission and they can change the way even doctors think about bacteria. And then add the work of Nathan Sharon, who wants to put the same pressure on bacteria to adapt that Ewald does, but do it by blocking adherence, and you open up a whole new world of investigation.\n\nBut the problem is the sugars that block adherence--Sharon's mannose, the Finn's xylitol, the wound doctor's erythritol--are foods that can't make any pharmaceutical dollars. The last effort of making a pharmaceutical hybrid that would work as xylitol to interfere with strep adherence was done 10 years ago and failed.\n\nOn a large scale we all know the failures of applying analytical thinking to complex problems, but we can't seem to say the appropriate good-byes to our need for predictability. As we learn from bacteria the way forward is to alter the environment is a non-threatening way and see how they adapt. We ought to be governing in the same way rather than trying to analyze our way out of our complex problems with failed linear thinking.\n\nThese are not profit making endeavors, but they do work. My own experience is written up in "The Boids and the Bees," and "No More Allergies, Asthma, or Sinus Infections," both available at Amazon.


Posts: 1

May 27, 2011

I am a microbiologist in Instiute of Microbiology, Bulgarian Academy of Sciences. Until now I have isolated bacteria from unusual sources, all products are imported into Bulgaria, lemons, sea salt, tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, mushrooms, tobacco, coffee. Isolated from bacteria and mites asbest and coal. Unfortunately due to the severe financial crisis for Bulgarian science, I am unable to identify and explore all of their toxicity and virulence, but I hope the sponsors of this happening. I think more important is to examine the sources of distribution, not to make vaccines, having in mind the fast changing conditions of survival

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