Seeing the Beautiful Intelligence of Microbes

Intelligence is not a quality to attribute lightly to microbes. There is no reason to think that bacteria, slime molds and similar single-cell forms of life have awareness, understanding or other capacities implicit in real intellect. But particularly when these cells commune in great numbers, their startling collective talents for solving problems and controlling their environment emerge. Those behaviors may be genetically encoded into these cells by billions of years of evolution, but in that sense the cells are not so different from robots programmed to respond in sophisticated ways to their environment. If we can speak of artificial intelligence for the latter, perhaps it’s not too outrageous to refer to the underappreciated cellular intelligence of the former.

Under the microscope, the incredible exercise of the … Read the rest

Bacteria Use Brainlike Bursts of Electricity to Communicate

Bacteria have an unfortunate — and inaccurate — public image as isolated cells twiddling about on microscope slides. The more that scientists learn about bacteria, however, the more they see that this hermitlike reputation is deeply misleading, like trying to understand human behavior without referring to cities, laws or speech. “People were treating bacteria as … solitary organisms that live by themselves,” said Gürol Süel, a biophysicist at the University of California, San Diego. “In fact, most bacteria in nature appear to reside in very dense communities.”

The preferred form of community for bacteria seems to be the biofilm. On teeth, on pipes, on rocks and in the ocean, microbes glom together by the billions and build sticky organic superstructures around themselves. In these films, … Read the rest