Microbial Intelligence

amoeba by gary larson

Microbial intelligence is the intelligence shown by microorganisms, including complex adaptive behavior shown by single cells, and altruistic and/or cooperative behavior in populations of like or unlike cells. While the number of microorganisms in a colony can run into the billions, each individual is able to stay synchronized by sharing simple chemical messages. Complex cells, like protozoa or algae, show remarkable abilities to organize themselves in changing circumstances. Shell-building by amoebae, reveals complex discrimination and manipulative skills that are ordinarily thought to occur only in multicellular organisms.

Even bacteria, which show primitive behavior as isolated cells, can display more sophisticated behavior as a population. Examples include: myxobacteria (which form motile slime colonies), quorum sensing (a system of stimulus and response correlated to population density), and biofilms (cells that cooperate to stick to each other on a surface). It has been suggested that a bacterial colony loosely mimics a biological neural network (i.e. a brain). The bacteria can take inputs in form of chemical signals, process them and then produce output chemicals to signal other bacteria in the colony.

The mechanisms that enable single celled organisms to coordinate in populations presumably carried over in those lines that evolved multicellularity, and were co-opted as mechanisms to coordinate multicellular organisms. Social IQ score of bacteria is a recently proposed quantitative score devised as a comparative genomic tool to assess the genome potential of bacteria to conduct successful cooperative and adaptable behaviors (or social behaviors) in complex adverse environments. The need of the new measure follows the current realization that bacteria are smart creatures that can conduct intricate social life in large and complex colonies using sophisticated chemical communication. We have only recently begun to decode how they can distribute tasks, ‘learn from experience,’ and prepare for the future.

The IQ score of humans is supposed to reflect their mathematical, analytical and logical capabilities. Social intelligence is an individual’s capacity to perceive and understand the environment – from local surroundings to what is happening in the world – and to respond to that understanding in a personally and socially effective manner. The social IQ score of a bacterial colony is based on the number of genes which allow the organism to communicate and process environmental information, and to synthesize offensive (toxic) and defensive (neutralizing) agents as needed during chemical warfare with other microorganisms.

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