Gamblers should take a hint from bacteria

Chips, Vegas, horses and odds are all words one normally associates with gambling.
However, a scientist has just thrown “bacteria” into the mix. 

According to Professor Eshel Ben-Jacob at the Tel Aviv University School of Physics and Astronomy, understanding our bacteria’s make up may give that winning streak the nearly bankrupt poker enthusiast hopes for.

In a recent article published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS), Ben-Jacob and his fellow researchers demonstrated how decisions made by communities of bacteria trump game theory.  Apparently “understanding bacteria’s reactions to stressful and hazardous conditions may improve decision-making processes in any human arena from everyday life to political elections.”

It’s all about looking at the way bacteria reacts.

“When human beings make a decision they think they’re being rational. We now understand that they’re influenced by superfluous ‘noise,’ such as their cognitive state and the influence of others,” he said.

He said bacteria is more sophisticated than our minds – meaning it could more effectively control this noise and make group decisions that contribute to the well-being of the entire bacterial colony.

Bacteria live in complex colonies that can be 100th the population of the earth. Under stressful circumstances, researchers found that bacteria could filter out the noisy and stressful environment around it and decipher what was important. From this it could make decisions that ensured the survival of the colony.

One example that the professor gave was a bacterial response to starvation or poisoning – a fraction of the cells “sporulate,” enclosing their DNA in a capsule or spore as the mother cell dies. This, Ben-Jacob said, ensures the survival of the colony. He said when the threat was removed, the spores can germinate and the colony grows again.

During this process, the bacteria “choose” whether or not to enter a state called “competence,” in which they change their membranes to more easily absorb substances from their neighbouring, dying cells. As a result, they recover more quickly when the stress is gone. According to Prof. Ben-Jacob, it’s a difficult choice – in fact, a gamble. .

The boffin said there were many times in life when humans faced similar decision. One example was choosing whether or not have a flu jab.

“Do you take the risk of the side effects and get inoculated, or do you trust that most of the people around you will get the vaccine and risk possible illness, sparing you both the disease and the side effects from the vaccine?,” he said.

“How do politicians make decisions on key issues, such as national debt, that can harm and benefit society?”

He said that there would always be “noise” surrounding decision making similar to bacteria and that we should use the mirco organism example to make an action plan.