The Boston University Physics Department hosted a very interesting talk yesterday by Robert Austin of Princeton. Austin has been studying the social behavior of bacteria, in order to help understand the social dynamics of other organisms, including humans. He shared with us some intriguing results about selfish and altruistic individuals, and the social dynamics between the two.
Indeed, Austin and his collaborators found a single gene that controls bacteria "selfishness." If it's off, bacteria slow down their metabolism and reproduction rate when they sense their environment has been depleted of nutrients. This prevents them from completely destroying their living space. However, if this gene is turned on ("expressed" is the technical term) the bacteria go right on eating until nothing is left. They even develop the ability to feed off of other dead bacteria.
Interesetingly, the gene is off by default when bacteria are found in the wild. But if you put them in a petri dish, mix them together, and cut off their food supply, you rather quickly (after only about 4 days!) see selfish mutants emerge. These mutants rapidly consume all the remaining food, including each other, and then starve.
This is an interesting conundrum. The petri dish situation seems pretty dire: first the cheaters win, and then everyone loses. This is another prisoner's dilemma situation: cheaters seem to have the advantage over the self-restraining altruists, but if everyone cheats then everyone is worse off.
On the other hand, bacteria in the wild exercise restraint, so there must be something different going on in the wild than in the petri dish.
Intrigued, Austin and his colleagues set up a different experiment. They designed an artificial landscape conatining many differnt chambers in which the bacteria could isolate themselves. Food sources were spread unevenly through the landscape. They also found a way to "manufacture" the selfish bacteria by fiddling with their DNA, and they dyed them a different color from the altruists to discern the interactions between the two.
In this situation, the altruists and the cheaters managed to coexist by segregating themselvs. The altruists gathered in dense clumps (and lived in harmony?) while the cheaters spread out sparsely (they don't even like each other!) around the altruists, occasionally gobbling up a dead one. Somehow, the altruists are able to segregate themselves in such a way that the cheaters can't steal their food; a marked contrast to the first experiments in which the bacteria were continually mixed together. Here's what this segretation looks like within two of the "chambers":
The chamber on the left, which is nutrient-poor, contains mainly cheaters waiting for others to die. The nutrient-rich chamber on the right contains "patches" of altruists and cheaters, never fully mixed. You can't see it from the picture, but the green altuists are very densely clumped and the red cheaters are spread apart from each other.
The possible life lesson here is that altruists can exist in a society with cheaters if the altruists can segregate themselves to form (utpoian?) communities. If there is forced mixing between the two groups then, unfortunately, it all ends in tragedy.
A very similar lesson can be found in the work of Werfel and Bar-Yam, but that's a story for another time.
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