Darwin Contradicted: Survival of the Friendliest Bacteria

Green Black Bacteria

New microbial research at the University of Copenhagen suggests that ‘survival of the friendliest’ outweighs ‘survival of the fittest’ for groups of bacteria

Bacteria make space for one another and sacrifice properties if it benefits the bacterial community as a whole. The discovery is a major step towards understanding complex bacteria interactions and the development of new treatment models for a wide range of human diseases and new green technologies.

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.

Social bacteria work shoulder to shoulder

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.”

Bacteria Compete or Collaborate for Survival

Understanding invisible bacterial synergy

The researchers also investigated what properties bacteria had when they were alone versus when they were with other bacteria. Humans often discuss the work place or group synergy, and how people inspire each other. Bacteria take this one step further when they survive in small communities.

“Bacteria take our understanding of group synergy and inspiration to a completely different level. They induce attributes in their neighbors that would otherwise remain dormant. In this way groups of bacteria can express properties that aren’t possible when they are alone.
When they are together totally new features can suddenly emerge,” Søren Johannes Sørensen explains.

Understanding how bacteria interact in groups has the potential to create a whole new area in biotechnology that traditionally strives to exploit single, isolated strains, one at a time.

“Bio-based society is currently touted as a solution to model many of the challenges that our societies face. However, the vast majority of today’s biotech is based on single organisms. This is in stark contrast to what happens in nature, where all processes are managed by cooperative consortia of organisms. We must learn from nature and introduce solutions to tap the huge potential of biotechnology in the future,” according to Søren Johannes Sørensen.

Reference: “Deciphering links between bacterial interactions and spatial organization in multispecies biofilms” by Wenzheng Liu, Samuel Jacquiod, Asker Brejnrod, Jakob Russel, Mette Burmølle and Søren J. Sørensen, 27 August 2019, ISME Journal.
DOI: 10.1038/s41396-019-0494-9

11 Comments on "Darwin Contradicted: Survival of the Friendliest Bacteria"

  1. Homo sapiens can learn a lot from humble bacteria!

  2. Vampire bats collaborate too, acting on friendship/reciprocity even more than kinship. The researcher who discovered this said (on today’s Fresh Air) that some thousands of years ago, vampire bats’ food source (megafauna) suddenly decreased a lot, and so they had to be friendly to survive at all.

    A couple of decades ago, I saw a presentation at a NECSI* conference modeling development of altruistic behavior among humans. The work found that a sudden resource squeeze (like an ice age) could cause development of cooperation, which could then persist – even though it could not evolve in a steady-state system.

    Bacteria must have a very hard life – their worlds are so small and ephemeral (a single water drop sometimes). So it’s no surprise (in hindsight) that they would evolve friendliness.

    The vampire bat researcher said he didn’t think friendliness would be widespread among animals. The NECSI talk similarly implies that it takes special circumstances. So Darwin can rest easy – he wasn’t usually wrong.

    Sorry I don’t have better citations.

    * NECSI = New England Complex Systems Institute. I very highly recommend their conferences.

  3. It was my understanding that survival of the fittest simply meant reproducing, which ultimately means keeping the species alive. I do not believe this contradicts that. The popular usage doesn’t really reflect what Darwin meant, and has come to mean simply competition, rather than the strategy best suited for the environment.

  4. I was always taught that Darwin, mechanism for evolution was “survival of the fittest.” In this case cooperative micro organisms seem to be the “fittest “ in their environment. Darwin’s hypothesis seems to be supported not contradicted.

  5. Emilio A. Herrera | October 14, 2019 at 3:14 am | Reply

    This does not contradict Darwin. Cooperation among animals including “lowly” ones such as amoeba and bacteria had been documented for a long time and the explanation is thoroughly Darwinian: genes being selected for because of the advantages they accrue to their “owners”. Clones, for instance, die for each other because they share 100% of their genes.

  6. You just INCREASED the complexity here. For a cell to SHARE WORKLOADS, it has to gave decision-making attributes. Dies anyone really think consequentially about these issues? …Or, are we all expected to dutifully fall in line with the expected AMENS to naturalistic philosophical rhetoric? How is sharing not requiring more intelligence??? Think! It requires THINKING or DECISION MAKING to share workloads. It sound more like SPECIALIZED CELLS here…or else we are looking at DIRECTED PROCESSES. WHAT INTELLIGENCE IS DOING THE DIRECTING in order to SHARE those workloads? Immediately this question came to mind when I saw what is being proposed. This doesn’t solve the natural process problem…it makes it harder to resolve.

  7. You just INCREASED the complexity here. For a cell to SHARE WORKLOADS, it has to have decision-making attributes. Dies anyone really think consequentially about these issues? …Or, are we all expected to dutifully fall in line with the expected AMENS to naturalistic philosophical rhetoric? How is sharing not requiring more intelligence??? Think! It requires THINKING or DECISION MAKING to share workloads. It sound more like SPECIALIZED CELLS here…or else we are looking at DIRECTED PROCESSES. WHAT INTELLIGENCE IS DOING THE DIRECTING in order to SHARE those workloads? Immediately this question came to mind when I saw what is being proposed. This doesn’t solve the natural process problem…it makes it harder to resolve.

  8. The title to this article is deceptive ‘click bait’. Darwin is not contradicted. Friendliness is not in opposition to fitness; it is a form of fitness. As noted by other commenters, Darwin’s natural selection says that evolution selects on the basis of fitness. Both competition and co-operation are strategies for achieving fitness.

  9. Agree with comments here. Read Dawkins “The Selfish Gene”. Is also why human parents will sacrifice for their children.

  10. I agree with some here that the author seems to be misunderstanding Darwin, especially when we use the term, “survival of the species”, as opposed to “survival of the individual.”

    More importantly, I don’t think the conclusion that there is inter-species cooperation by individuals has been adequately supported by the data. I don’t question the facts concerning over all results, such as increased bio film production, but question whether the mechanism for individual cooperation has been adequately identified.

  11. The Survival of the Friendliest species, can give more insights into understanding the Darwin’s Survival of the Fittest species. I believed this two ideas are opposite sides of a coin. the friendliest, likely to survive with the fittest, can be observed in humans.

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