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Bacterial Time-Sharing

Competition for food drives bacterial colonies to feed and rest at different times.

Valerie Brown, Contributor
Saturday, May 27, 2017


Photo of Gram-positive Paenibacillus macerans bacteria, which is closely related to members of the genus Bacillus, cultured on sheep blood agar medium.

Source: CDC/Todd Parker


Time-sharing seems like something invented by real estate moguls to squeeze every last penny out of their properties. But humans are just copying bacteria—and not doing as good a job at it, according to one researcher.

Molecular biologist Gürol Süel of the University of California San Diego and colleagues wanted to find out how two different populations of Bacillus subtilis would relate to each other in the presence of a steady supply of nutrients. They identified two ways the groups interacted—communicating via electrical signals and competing for nutrients. 

The researchers found that the more the populations communicated, the more likely they were to be in-phase -- that is, to feed and rest in the same temporal pattern. The more they fed at the same time, the more they competed. But the more they competed, the more pressure there was to "time-share" by feeding and resting out of phase. So, there was a constant tension between the two populations’ communications and their consumption of resources—a sort of "push me, pull you" situation. The study was published in Science on April 6.

Overall, the researchers found that time-sharing is the optimal arrangement for both populations, because it allows each population full access to the nutrient pool. And they did it all without a manager—something humans still rely on for coordinating time-shares. “It’s interesting to observe a supposedly simple organism that engages in sophisticated strategies such as time-sharing,” Süel said. “I’m pretty sure they’re doing it better than we are.”