Boffins say bacteria make decisions

Boffins at the University of Tennessee have come up with the unusual claim that bacteria can manage complex decisions.

Gladys Alexandre of the University of Tennessee in Knoxville said that the bacterial responses and adaptations to changes in their environment are the same as “thinking.”

Thinking germsPenning her study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which we get for the Spot the Microbe contest, Alexandre said that if we understand what the bugs are saying then we could tailor medicines to fight harmful bacteria or to finding enhanced ways to use “good” bacteria in agricultural or other applications.

She said that boffins had not noticed thinking bacteria before because they had been tending to study Escherichia coli. She thinks that E. coli is the cerebrally challenged denizen of Bacteria World.

She had a look at the soil bacterium, Azospirillum brasilense and found it was a darn sight brighter than E. coli and its cognitive ability was a little more obvious.

E. coli has only five receptors that direct its decision-making process about movement, while Azospirillum brasilense has 48, making it comparatively “smarter” at detecting environmental changes, Alexandre says.