Female scientist analyzing growing bacterial cultures

Study reveals ‘spiteful’ behavior in bacteria

Case Western Reserve University mathematician, researchers at Canada’s York University look at bacteria that may harm themselves just to get rid of freeloaders

Bugged by freeloaders? You are not alone, and leeching off others is not just a human problem. In fact, it is not uncommon in the animal kingdom, where even some cheater species of bacteria exhibit such selfish behavior.

An even more fascinating fact was discovered by a research team led by York University in Toronto, Canada, that explored bacteria’s quorum-sensing trait, a sophisticated form of co-operation, using which bacteria can regulate gene expression according to their population density.  The research team included co-author Peter Thomas, professor of mathematics at the College of Arts and Sciences at Case Western Reserve University.

Peter Thomas

The researchers from York and Case Western Reserve published their work in July in the journal PLOS Computational Biology. They said they were surprised to find bacterial colonies might go to the extent of harming themselves just to get rid of these “freeloaders.”

“We didn’t expect to see this behavior, which you might even call ‘spiteful’,” said Andrew Eckford, an associate professor at York University’s Lassonde School of Engineering, and the study’s senior author. “But it indicates that quorum sensing is a remarkably flexible tool for enforcing fairness.”

For the study, researchers looked at how quorum sensing regulates the supply of shared resources, such as enzymes that break down a food source into useful nutrients. When freeloaders take the nutrients without producing enzymes, they found the cheaters can be punished even though the entire community suffers—much like canceling a banquet when an uninvited guest sneaks in. And if freeloading is rampant and no other food is available, quorum sensing can starve the whole community.

“It’s costly for a bacterium to contribute to the community, so for a selfish individual, it’s best to simply take what’s offered without giving anything back,” said lead author Alex Moffett, who was a York University postdoctoral fellow at the time of the study. “But obviously this is bad for everyone, so the community needs a way to discourage bad behavior.”

The researchers found that instead of relying on the honor system, these microorganisms used quorum sensing to suppress the freeloaders. To further understand how quorum sensing compares to other strategies for controlling production of public goods, they used mathematical modeling.

“Our model captures both how likely ‘cheater’ strains—which do not produce public goods but benefit from them—are to take over a population and how long on average the population will last before going extinct,” Thomas said.

As quorum sensing plays an important role in bacterial infection such as the lung infections that affect sufferers of cystic fibrosis, the research team hopes to apply results of this study to understand and disrupt such diseases. “This will help us understand how bacteria can colonize the lungs so effectively, which might point the way to new treatments,” Moffett said.

For more information, contact Mike Scott at mike.scott@case.edu.