But it makes a lot of sense if you think about it:
New microbial research at the Department of Biology reveals that bacteria would rather unite against external threats, such as antibiotics, rather than fight against each other. The report has just been published in the scientific publication ISME Journal. For a number of years the researchers have studied how combinations of bacteria behave together when in a confined area. After investigating many thousands of combinations it has become clear that bacteria cooperate to survive and that these results contradict what Darwin said in his theories of evolution.
“In the classic Darwinian mindset, competition is the name of the game. The best suited survive and outcompete those less well suited. However, when it comes to microorganisms like bacteria, our findings reveal the most cooperative ones survive,” explains Department of Biology microbiologist, Professor Søren Johannes Sørensen.Faculty of Science, “Friendly bacteria collaborate to survive” at University of Copenhagen
Of course, in the real world, “survival of the friendliest” makes a great deal more sense than a Darwinian war of all against all because most life forms are best off to minimize energy-draining hostilities wherever possible.
By isolating bacteria from a small corn husk (where they were forced to “fight” for space) the scientists were able to investigate the degree to which bacteria compete or cooperate to survive. The bacterial strains were selected based upon their ability to grow together. Researchers measured bacterial biofilm, a slimy protective layer that shields bacteria against external threats such as antibiotics or predators. When bacteria are healthy, they produce more biofilm and become stronger and more resilient.
Time after time, the researchers observed the same result: Instead of the strongest outcompeting the others in biofilm production, space was allowed to the weakest, allowing the weak to grow much better than they would have on their own. At the same time the researchers could see that the bacteria split up laborious tasks by shutting down unnecessary mechanisms and sharing them with their neighbors.
“It may well be that Henry Ford thought that he had found something brilliant when he introduced the assembly line and worker specialization, but bacteria have been taking advantage of this strategy for a billion years,” says Søren Johannes Sørensen referring to the oldest known bacterial fossils with biofilm. He adds:
“Our new study demonstrates that bacteria organize themselves in a structured way, distribute work and even to help each other. This means that we can find out which bacteria cooperate, and possibly, which ones depend on each another, by looking at who sits next to who.”Faculty of Science, “Friendly bacteria collaborate to survive” at University of Copenhagen
Don’t be too surprised if many pathogens get a lot of co-operation from “harmless” bacteria too, complicating the picture. But then who said life was simple?
Paper. (open access)
See also: What the fossils told us in their own words