Bacteria balance self and group. Why can’t we?

It appears that nature strikes a balance between selflessness and selfishness at the deepest level. It’s a matter of survival.

Researchers have identified genetic circuitry within individual bacterium that allow them to both act on their own and come together with others to serve the whole colony. This micro-photograph captures a bacterium in transition between two phenotypes, from looking out for self to acting for the whole.

The blog Kurzweil has a great article on the topic: “Genetic circuit allows both individual freedom, collective good.”

From that article:

“These new principles could be broadly applicable, from the study of cancer metastasis to the study of collective decisions by humans during times of stress,”  [said Ben-Jacob, adjunct professor of biochemistry and cell biology at Rice University].

Some species of bacteria live in complex colonies that can contain millions of individual cells. An increasing body of research on bacterial colonies has found that members often cooperate — even to the point of sacrificing their lives — for the survival of their colony…

Individual bacteria weigh their decisions carefully, taking into account the stress they are facing, the situation of their peers, the statistics of how many cells are sporulating and how many are choosing competence.

If you really want to geek out, the authors point to a Google Tech Talk featuring Eshel Ben-Jacob, “a leader in the theory of self-organization and pattern formation in open systems, complex systems and biocomplexity.” He’s not only a brilliant, very big-picture thinker, but also a great presenter. His PowerPoint slides have the energy of a hip-hop video.

(Image: Eshel Ben-Jacob/Rice University)

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