Slimy, Weird, Cheaters

Lurking in gutters, gardens and forests, just under-foot, lies something strange. Something almost alien. They lead independent lives as single cells foraging for, and feeding on, bacteria. But when food becomes scarce they work together, in their millions, forming a multicellular ‘organism’ of individuals. In this form they’re more mobile; moving about, looking for food or new environments, displaying something akin to a brainless form of intelligence. They are everywhere, on almost every continent; but they didn’t arrive on a meteorite, like aliens bent on world domination. Instead they’ve been with us for nearly a billion years. They are the ‘slime moulds’. But wherever individuals cooperate for the greater good of their ilk, there are always cheaters; even among the slime moulds.

Food fight: Bacteria’s biological warfare

You’re not just eating for one. You’re eating for trillions. We like to think of ourselves as an individual, but the truth is we are never alone. We are a buzzing hive of bacteria and other microbes that make up our ‘microbiome’. They eke out a living in whatever niches they can find, our skin or parts of our digestive system; we are an ecosystem. Like all ecosystems there is competition for resources, and some microbes don’t take it lying down, they fight. I’ve written before about Cholera’s spring loaded dagger, but microbes have many means at their disposal, some release enzymes to chew off important bits of their competitors, or poison them. But a few go a step further; they use biological warfare: unleashing viruses to kill off the competition.