How smart is that!

Tags: Knowledge

Bacteria have the capacity to process information, solve problems and make decisions

Bacteria can sense sound, light, pressure, gravity and chemicals. Common bacteria E. coli can sense and respond to changes in temperature, pH, noxious chemicals, DNA-damaging agents, mineral abundance, energy sources, electron acceptors, metabolites, chemical signals from other bacteria, and parasites.

Bacteria have two kinds of motion: directed movement and random tumbling. Bacteria also possess a kind of memory. Bacteria can swim in chemical gradients. It swims towards attractants and goes away from repellents. There are bacteria that display phototaxis (movement in response to light) and magnetotaxis (movement in response to magnetic fields). Bacteria possess information-encoding devices, which are sensitive to light, chemicals, magnetic fields and so on. The local environment is responsible to activate these receptors.

Like us bacteria possesses social intelligence and have the capacity to perceive and understand the environment. Like us they can process information, solve problems and make decisions. Because they are ‘intelligent’ they can thrive in harsh environments. They can survive under nutritional stress by maximising their nutritional absorption ability. Like us they know how to keep the surplus. They know how to prevent other species invading their space. They even commit suicide for the sake of compatriots. Under antibiotic stress, bacteria have shown remarkable reorganisation capability. In mixed species, colony bacteria have shown tremendous gene swapping capability. Some bacteria possess the capability to transform themselves into endospore to resist heat and dehydration. Bacteria use chemical language when they talk to each other. Bacteria too have a “sense of quorum”. Many species of bacteria use quorum sensing to coordinate gene expression. The formation of biofilms requires joint decision by the whole colony. Bacteria, for example, use quorum sensing to decide whether or where to form biofilm. To enter a host’s cell, bacteria require the knowledge of the receptors through which it can enter the cell. Some E. coli cells are so smart that they can internalise themselves into host’s cell even in the absence of specific receptors. They can do this because they can bring their own receptor to which they attach themselves and enter the cell.

Some microorganisms have the ability to protect themselves from the immune systems because they can change their surface antigens. Microbiologist Lynn Margulis when asked about bacterial intelligence said bacteria are certainly conscious. They can do a lot of things. They can orient themselves and they can work together to make structures. “This ability to respond specifically to the environment and to act creatively, in the sense that precise action has never been taken before, is a property of life. Of course, it has to be moving life, or you can’t tell. You can’t tell if a plant is thinking, but in organisms that move, you can tell their intelligence.”

A team of researchers from Tel Aviv University, led by Ben Jacob, have studied social capabilities of bacteria. They have even developed a ‘Social-IQ score’ for bacteria. The score is based on the number of genes a particular bacterial strain has with abilities to communicate and process environmental information, to make decisions and to synthesise offensive and defensive agents as needed during chemical warfare with other microorganisms. Individuals with extremely high IQ may have poor social skills. Social intelligence (SI) is different from IQ. SI is an individual’s capacity to perceive and understand the environment and to respond to that understanding in a personally and socially effective manner.

A bacterium called Paenibacillus vorte seem to possess the social IQ score at the ‘genius range’. In comparison, social IQ score of pathogens is generally ‘average’. Thus ‘smart bacteria’ like Paenibacillus vorte can outsmart pathogenic bacteria. The so-called ‘smart bacteria’ can play a significant role for the betterment of our lifestyle provided we recognise and appreciate their smartness. Bacteria have the ability to develop large colonies, and these colonies reflect their power of cooperation. Researchers say smart bacteria can even be made to think they are alone even when they are in a crowd.

All said and done, can an organism be called to have senses without the capacity to have perceptions?

(The writer is a biotechnologist

and ED, Birla Institute of

Scientific Research, Jaipur)

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