Humans Can Learn From Bacteria Decision-Making
When It Comes To The H1N1 Flu
Bacteria inhabited our planet for more than 4 billion years before
humans showed up, and they'll probably outlive us by as many eons
more. That suggests they may have something to teach us, including
how to handle the H1N1 flu.
New research from Tel Aviv University bacteria expert Prof. Eshel
Ben-Jacob of the Raymond and Beverly Sackler School of Physics
and Astronomy, grounded in the study of bacteria, presents compelling
evidence to suggest there may be good reasons why most people
should not automatically opt for the swine flu H1N1 shot.
In research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy
of Science (PNAS), Prof. Ben Jacob uses the decision-making of
bacteria, an analogue of "game theory," as a model to
make his case.
"Unlike our health authorities, bacteria would never panic,"
he says. "Bacteria don't follow the media or watch cable
news. Instead, they send chemical messages to each other -- in
a colony 100 times larger than the earth's human population --
to make their decisions. And based on what we've seen in bacterial
colonies, I know they would be suspicious committing to swine
flu shots. They wouldn't opt for a colony wide vaccination,"
Prof. Ben Jacob concludes.
The prisoner's dilemma
The new research, done in collaboration with Dr. Daniel Schultz,
a postdoctoral fellow at TAU, and Profs. José Onuchic and
Peter Wolynes at the University of California/San Diego, not only
provides a paradigm for assessing responses to health emergencies,
it may also provide investors with insight into how to manage
In the PNAS paper, the scientists explored how microscopic creatures
living in large colonies decide their fate in adverse times under
complicated and life threatening conditions. They found that bacteria
communicate through chemical signals and reach decisions in sophisticated
ways, using an elaborate network of genes and proteins to calculate
complex possibilities, as in game theory.
In essence, in life or death situations, bacteria employ more
advanced tactics than those used to solve the classic problem
known as "the prisoner's dilemma." This may account
for their colony's resilience. In the classic problem, two prisoners
are asked to betray each other. If one testifies against the other
and the other remains silent, the betrayer goes free and the silent
one (the prisoner loyal to his friend), will get 10 years in prison.
If both remain silent (and cooperate with each other), they are
sentenced to only one year in jail. If each one betrays the other,
both will be sentenced to 5 years in jail. The temptation, of
course, is to betray -- but neither prisoner can be sure what
the other will say, and could risk five years in jail.
In the case of bacteria, there are not two but hundreds of billions
of participants with a limited time to decide whether to deal
with a stress situation by all turning into spores. Each bacterium
has to decide whether it will cooperate or not. Unlike the prisoners,
there is a clock ticking away. And each bacterium must quickly
send out chemical messages to its peer cells about its intentions.
Bacteria "usually don't lie" about their own plans,
Prof. Ben Jacob says, but the minority that do have a chance of
surviving won't cheat to postpone the decision of others. The
scientists' new article presents a model that decodes how bacteria
use the gene-and-protein networks to calculate risks and the game
theory principles they employ.
Maintaining a delicate balance
Americans uncertain about getting the H1N1 flu shot because they've
heard about potentially dangerous side effects also face the prisoner's
dilemma. Perhaps it's better not to get the shot, one may think,
because if everybody else is vaccinated, the virus will be wiped
out before it reaches me.
"The simple rule we learned from bacteria is that anybody
who has to make an important decision -- especially one of life
and death at times of stress -- should wait to see the trend of
changes, process the risks and odds in depth, and only then decide,"
says Prof. Ben-Jacob.
Based on what he and his colleagues learned about bacteria, he
imagines that bacteria might offer this counsel regarding the
flu shot: "They might suggest that only people who have widespread
and intense contact with many others, such as business travellers
and teachers, should get the shot. Those who are most likely to
spread the virus should be vaccinated.
"Bacteria don't take risks like we do and the results have
paid off. They are super-successful, more than any creature on
earth. They wouldn't abuse the stock market, and would never invest
beyond their means. I am also pretty sure most would not rush
to get the flu shot, if given the choice," he concludes.
"They know how to keep a delicate balance."
Reference Sources 128
December 18, 2009