Are Bacteria Tribalists? By Brian Simpson

     We tend to only think about bacteria when they are trying to kill us, but these little critters are very interesting, and have a secret life of their own, often conspiratorial:

“Scientists have long known that bacteria can fight other bacteria by producing their own version of antibiotics. The researchers behind a recent study have uncovered another bacterial survival tactic. By generating toxic proteins, certain bacteria become capable of communicating with one another, essentially allowing them to form their own social networks. This remarkable discovery was opened up by researchers from the Argonne National Laboratory. According to Science Daily, the team found this out after they had obtained molecular protein structures from the NC101 strain of the Escherichia coli (E. coli) bacteria. The protein structures were identified as being from a three-part system that consisted of a contact-dependent growth inhibition (CDI) toxin, its elongation factor, and its immunity protein. Finding the immunity protein led the researchers to believe that this system’s purpose is two-fold. First is competition, and second is communication or signaling. Through this, the bacterial cells could interact with each other, or possibly kill or even control other pathogens.

“There are really only a few molecules of the toxin that get into the neighboring cell. It’s hard to estimate the real extent of the cell damage. That’s why we were thinking it’s not meant to kill, but rather to control and communicate,” explained Karolina Michalska, protein crystallographer and co-author of the paper. Andrzej Joachimiak, Director of Structural Biology Center and Midwest Center for Structural Genomics and Michalska’s co-author, added: “We are basically learning how the bacteria interact and communicate. We have some ideas that we are trying to resolve, because the toxins may have different activities. They may affect different bacteria differently.”

     This supplies some preliminary evidence that bacteria, like most of the rest of nature, operate in tribes. Hence, we should not be surprised to find that human beings do the same thing, quite naturally, and if so, it is not unreasonable to organise society so that this natural impulse is not frustrated. If it is good enough for bacteria, it should be good enough for us!



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Monday, 08 August 2022