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Weapon-wielding marine microbes may protect populations from foes
Date:9/6/2012

be strong competitors with one another.

This makes cooperation involving antibiotics doubly surprising, because the ability to produce antibiotics is a classic example of a "selfish" gene that ought to increase the fitness or reproductive rate of the individual carrying the gene. In a strictly competitive environment, the microbe would use this advantage against its closest relatives. But now it looks as if this competition is modulated by social interactions where antibiotics produced by a few individuals act as "public goods": items that benefit the group, rather than just the individual.

This differentiation of populations into individuals that produce antibiotics and those that are resistant is one of the first demonstrations that microbial populations engage in a division of labor by social role. This observation also provides an explanation for why so many genes are patchily distributed across genomes of closely related microbes. At least some of these genes may be responsible for creating tightly knit social units of bacteria in the wild.

"It's easy to imagine bacteria in the environment as selfish creatures capable only of reproducing as fast as conditions allow, without any social organization," says Otto Cordero, a CEE postdoc who is a first author on the Science paper. "But that is the mind-blowing part: Bacterial wars are organized along the lines of populations, which are groups of closely related individuals with similar ecological activities."

The study also uncovers an untapped source of antibiotics that could have the potential to aid in the fight against human bacterial pathogens, which are rapidly developing resistance to the few antibiotics in use nearly all of which are produced by soil-living bacteria.

To obtain these findings, the researchers tested about 35,000 interactions among pairs of 185 strains of Vibrionaceae bacteria populations taken from the ocean. They found that 44 percent of the str
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Contact: Sarah McDonnell
s_mcd@mit.edu
617-253-8923
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Source:Eurekalert

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