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Genetic circuit allows both individual freedom, collective good
Date:4/22/2013

HOUSTON -- (April 22, 2013) -- Individual freedom and social responsibility may sound like humanistic concepts, but an investigation of the genetic circuitry of bacteria suggests that even the simplest creatures can make difficult choices that strike a balance between selflessness and selfishness.

In a new study the journal Scientific Reports, researchers from Rice University's Center for Theoretical Biological Physics (CTBP) and colleagues from Tel Aviv University and Harvard Medical School show how sophisticated genetic circuits allow an individual bacterium within a colony to act on its own while also ensuring that the colony pulls together in hard times.

"Our findings suggest new principles for collective decisions that allow both random behavior by individuals and nonrandom outcomes for the population as a whole," said study co-author Eshel Ben-Jacob, a senior investigator at CTBP and adjunct professor of biochemistry and cell biology at Rice. "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."

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. For example, in response to extreme stress, such as starvation, most of the individual cells in a colony of the bacteria Bacillus subtilis will form spores. Spore formation is a drastic choice because it requires the cell to kill itself to encase a copy of its genetic code in a tough, impervious shell. Though the living cell dies, the spore acts as a kind of time capsule that allows the organism to re-emerge into the world of the living when conditions improve.

"This time-travel strategy of waiting and safeguarding a copy of the DNA in the spore ensu
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Contact: Jade Boyd
jadeboyd@rice.edu
713-348-6778
Rice University
Source:Eurekalert

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