Realizing Social Intelligence of Bacteria
Social-IQ score of bacteria was developed and evaluated for all bacteria with sequenced genome. The new score can help to better benefit from high IQ friendly bacteria and outsmart pathogenic ones.
Bacteria, long perceived as simple creatures, are now recognised to be smart beasts that can conduct intricate social life while using sophisticated chemical language, one we have only recently begun to decode. The bacterial power of cooperation is manifested by their ability to develop large colonies of astonishing complexity, as seen in the picture below.
Paenibacillus vortex colony. The colony diameter is about 8cm; it contains 100 times more bacteria than the number of people on Earth.
The power of cooperation
While the number of bacteria in a colony can be more than 100 times the number of people on Earth, they all know what they all doing; each cell is both an actor and a spectator in the bacterial Game of Life. Acting jointly, these tiny organisms can sense the environment, process information, solve problems and make decisions so as to thrive in harsh environments. In better times, when exposed to an environment containing abundant nutrients, instead of rushing to exhaust the available resources, as human communities often do, bacteria save for the future and make sure to be prepared for hard times that might befall them in the future. But how smart bacteria really are, and what makes them that way?
Social-IQ of humans
The IQ score of humans is supposed to reflect their mathematical, analytical and logical capabilities. We've come to understand that in society, emotional and social skills may be equally important, and individuals with extremely high IQ may have poor social skills. Social intelligence is an individual's capacity to perceive and understand the environment - from local surroundings to what is happening in the world - and to respond to that understanding in a personally and socially effective manner. In view of that, a Social-IQ score has been developed in a manner similar to the familiar IQ, where the average S-IQ is defined as 100 points; socially gifted individuals have S-IQ of one standard deviation above normal and those with brilliant social skills have S-IQ of two standard deviations above normal.
In a recent research published in BMC Genomics, an international team from Israel, USA, Netherland, Russia and India (led by Prof. Ben-Jacob from Tel Aviv university and a Fellow of the Center for Theoretical Biological Physics at UCSD, and his research student Ms. Alexandra Sirota-Madi) first presented the sequenced genome of the social and pattern-forming bacteria - the Paenibacillus vortex (discovered two decades ago by Prof. Ben-Jacob and collaborators) that created the colonies shown in the picture.
While studying the genome, the team developed Social-IQ score for bacteria and performed comparative analysis of 500 bacteria whose genome was sequenced. The score is based on the number of genes which afford bacteria abilities to communicate and process environmental information (two-component and transcription-factor genes), to make decisions and to synthesize offensive (toxic) and defensive (neutralizing) agents as needed during chemical warfare with other microorganisms. Notably, they found that the Paenibacillus vortex (with two other Paenibacillus bacteria strains) has the highest Social-IQ score among all 500 sequenced bacteria, over 3 standard deviations higher than average, indicating a capacity for exceptionally brilliant social skills. Humans with IQ of three standard deviations above average include scientists like Albert Einstein, Stephen Hawking and Richard Dawkins.
Our best friends and worst enemies
Bacteria are the most prolific organisms on Earth. Many of them are fierce killers, but many more are indispensible to our survival. In our rush to free the human race from deadly bacterial diseases, we created a major health problem worldwide: bacteria are becoming increasingly resistant to antibiotics. Even in the West, bacteria are one of the top 3 killers in hospitals today. Unaware of bacteria's social intelligence, which allows them to learn from experience to solve new problems and then share their newly acquired skills, we use antibiotics indiscriminately. As a result, bacteria developed multiple drug resistance, and we can't invent new drugs fast enough to beat them.
Acknowledging bacteria’s social intelligence
To change this threat to our health, we must realize they have social intelligence. Only if we accept how smart they are can we find ways to destroy the pathogenic bacteria and at the same time find new ways to better exploit the capabilities of friendly bacteria for our benefit. There is now hope that soon we will find new ways to fight drug-resistant pathogenic bacteria. Our study shows that the pathogenic bacteria are not so smart; their Social-IQ score is just at the average level. Acknowledging that bacteria are smart will direct research effort to gather information and to deepen the understanding of bacteria's social intelligence. Then, we will learn how to outsmart the bacteria - for example, by tampering with their communication or by turning toxic material they produce against them, as we have recently shown.
Harnessing bacterial intelligence
This information can also be directly applied in “green” agriculture or biological control, where bacteria’s advanced offense strategies and the toxic agents they synthesize are used to fight harmful bacteria and fungi and even higher organisms. The Paenibacillus genus bacteria, to which the three smartest bacteria belong, are known to be a rich source for industrial, agricultural and medical applications.
Bacteria are often found in soil and live in harmony with a plant’s roots –– a process called symbiosis. The environment down there is very competitive, and bacteria help the plant roots access nutrients; in exchange, the bacteria consume sugar from the roots. Both help each other.
For that reason, bacteria are now applied in agriculture to increase the productivity of plants and make them stronger against pests and disease. The Social-IQ score could help developers screen which bacteria might work best for each task.
Bacteria as Biotechnology Factories
The gut bacterium, Escherichia coli, is currently the basis for synthetic biology – building new functions into microorganisms. Synthetic biology is extensive genetic engineering using modules of genes as the building bricks. Paenibacillus vortex may contribute more “smart” social and communicative gene modules to this effort. This strain has considerable potential as a biotechnology factory. As an extension of synthetic biology, the potential exists for “programmable biotechnology”. Currently, low Social-IQ industrial microorganisms build a single useful compound (a therapeutic agent, an enzyme, a food additive) like an old fashioned production line. Smarter, more flexible industrial microorganisms based on Paenibacilli may be able to make decisions as to what to produce and when – for example in deploying an antibiotic only when needed.
The research impact is three-fold. It measures just how “smart” bacteria really can be –– a new emerging paradigm in the science community today. It demonstrates their high level of social intelligence. And lastly, the work in the recent paper points out some potentially lucrative applications in medicine and agriculture.
The new paper highlights Prof. Ben-Jacob’s discovery of a new strain of bacteria Paenibacillus vortex in Israel, and it points out that it belongs to the three smartest bacteria – bacteria whose social intelligence capacity in comparison to other bacteria is like Einstein’s scientific capacity to that of ordinary people.
Thanks to the special capabilities of the new bacteria strain, it can be used by researchers globally to further investigate the social intelligence of bacteria. Only when we know how smart they really are, can we use them as biotechnology factories and apply them optimally in agriculture.
“Genome sequence of the pattern forming Paenibacillus vortex bacterium reveals potential for thriving in complex environments”
BMC Genomics 2010, 11:710 (doi:10.1186/1471-2164-11-710)
Electronic version: http://www.biomedcentral.com/1471-2164/11/710
(Movies are available online in the additional files 2-6)