A new study carried out by the University of Copenhagen suggests that in some groups of bacteria the survival of the friendliest takes place instead of the survival of the fittest as Darwin postulated.
According to this new study, there are groups of bacteria that leave space for each other and are capable of sacrificing certain properties if they benefit the bacterial community as a whole through mutualistic and co-evolutionary relationships.
This discovery is a major step towards understanding complex bacteria interactions and for the development of new treatment models for a wide range of human diseases and also for the development of new green technologies.
The study published in the ISME Journal has revealed that bacteria tend to band together against external threats rather than fight each other.
For many years researchers have studied how different combinations of bacteria behave together when confined to a certain area. After investigating thousands of combinations it has been revealed that bacteria cooperate to survive and that these results contradict what Darwin said in his theory of evolution.
In the classical Darwinian mind, competition is the name of the game. The fittest survive and beat those less fit. However, when we refer to microorganisms as bacteria, our findings reveal that the most cooperative survive ”, explains the microbiologist from the Department of Biology, Søren Johannes Sørensen.
Social bacteria work shoulder to shoulder
By isolating the bacteria from a small corn husk (where they were forced to “fight” for space) the scientists were able to investigate the degree to which the bacteria compete or cooperate to survive.
Bacterial strains were selected based on their ability to grow together. The researchers measured bacterial biofilm , a viscous protective layer that protects bacteria against external threats such as antibiotics or predators. When bacteria are healthy, they produce more biofilm and become stronger and more resistant.
Time after time, the researchers observed the same result: instead of the strongest beating the others in biofilm production, the weakest were allowed room, allowing the weaker ones to grow better than if they did so on their own. Through this cooperation the bacteria produced up to 300% more biofilm than if they had done it individually.
At the same time, the researchers were able to observe that the bacteria divided laborious tasks by closing unnecessary mechanisms and sharing them with their neighbors, in true Henry Ford fashion when he designed the assembly lines and the specialization of work.
According to the authors of the study, it shows that bacteria organize themselves in a structured way, distribute work and help each other. It also means that you can discover which bacteria cooperate and which are dependent on each other by observing how they come together.
Understand invisible bacterial synergies
In this study they also investigated what properties the bacteria had when they were alone versus when they were with other bacteria. Humans often discuss the workplace or group synergy, and how people inspire each other. Bacteria go a step further when they survive in small communities.
“Bacteria take our understanding of group synergy and inspiration to an entirely different level. They induce attributes in their neighbors that would otherwise remain latent. In this way, groups of bacteria can express properties that are not possible when they are alone (…) When they are together, totally new characteristics can suddenly emerge, ”explains Søren Johannes Sørensen.
Understanding how bacteria interact in groups has the potential to create an entirely new area in biotechnology that traditionally strives to exploit individual and isolated strains, one at a time.
“Bio-based society is currently being touted as a solution to shape many of the challenges our societies face. However, the vast majority of biotechnology today is based on unique organisms. This is in stark contrast to what happens in nature, where all processes are managed by cooperative consortia of organisms . We must learn from nature and introduce solutions to harness the enormous potential of biotechnology in the future, “according to Søren Johannes Sørensen.