Cooperate or cheat? For bacteria, depends on available food

Bacterial “cheating”

If you’ve got plenty of burgers and beers on hand and your own stomach is full, an uninvited guest at your neighborhood barbecue won’t put much strain on you.

But if you’re hungry and food and drink supplies are running low when the moocher shows up, it’s a different story.

New research by microbiologist Martin Schuster indicates bacteria know just how you feel.

Microbes that produce important secretions for use in a community suffer a blow to their own fitness for supplying the non-producing “cheater” bacteria – but only when production requires the same nutrients that would otherwise go into growth and biomass.

“The big picture of this research is a better understanding of how cooperation works and how cooperation evolved,” said corresponding author Martin Schuster. “We can use microbes to study social evolution. Essentially every environment is nutrient limited in some way, and our study allows us to make predictions about what types of environments are conducive to cooperation or cheating.”

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