Simulation of how groups of bacteria (in green) behave in a fluid flowing under conditions known as ‘Poiseuille flow’. Image Credits: GIF created from Video 4 of Uppal and Vural, 2018. (CC BY 4.0)

Going with the flow

How can differences in the environment influence the evolution of social interactions in bacteria?

Jun 19, 2018 · 3 min read

According to the principle of the ‘survival of the fittest’, selfish individuals should be better off compared to peers that cooperate with each other. Indeed, even though a population of organisms benefits from working together, selfish members can exploit the cooperative behavior of others without doing their part. These ‘cheaters’ then use their advantage to reproduce faster and take over the population.

Yet, social cooperation is widespread in the natural world, and occurs in creatures as diverse as bacteria and whales. How can it arise and persist then? One idea is that when individuals form distinct groups, the ones with cheaters will perish. Even though a selfish individual will fare better than the rest of its team, overall, cooperating groups will survive more and reproduce faster; ultimately, they will be favored by evolution. This is called group selection.

Here, Uppal and Vural examine how the physical properties of the environment can influence the evolution of social interactions between bacteria. To this end, mathematical models are used to simulate how bacteria grow, evolve and drift in a flowing fluid. These are based on equations worked out from the behavior of real-life populations.

How groups of bacteria (in green) behave in a fluid flowing under conditions known as ‘Couette flow’. Image Credits: Still from Video 3 of Uppal and Vural, 2018. (CC BY 4.0)

The results show that flow patterns in a fluid habitat govern the social behavior of bacteria. When different regions of the fluid are moving at different speeds, ‘shear forces’ are created that cause bacterial colonies to distort and occasionally break apart to form two groups. As such, cooperative groups will rapidly form new cooperating colonies, whereas groups with cheaters will reproduce slower or perish.

Furthermore, results show that when different areas of the fluid have different shear forces, social cooperation will only prevail in certain places. This makes it possible to use flow patterns to fine tune social evolution so that cooperating bacteria will be confined in a certain region. Outside of this area, these bacteria would be taken over by cheaters and go extinct.

Bacteria are both useful and dangerous to humans: for example, certain species can break down pollutants in the water, when others cause deadly infections. These results show it could be possible to control the activity of these microorganisms to our advantage by changing the flow of the fluids in which they live. More broadly, the simulations developed by Uppal and Vural can be applied to a variety of ecosystems where microscopic organisms inhabit fluids, such as plankton flowing in oceanic currents.

To find out more

eLife is an open-access journal that publishes outstanding research in the life sciences and biomedicine.
This text was reused under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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