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See Inside June 2011

The Smartest Bacteria on Earth

One species of soil microbe makes unusually wise communal decisions



Courtesy of Eshel Ben-Jacob, Ina Brainis and Kineret Ben Knaan Tel Aviv University

Eshel Ben-Jacob is interested not only in the genomes of the bacteria he studies but also in their personalities. He compares many to Hollywood celebrities. “On the one hand, we admire them, but on the other hand, we think that they are stupid,” says Ben-Jacob, a professor of physics at Tel Aviv University in Israel. In December, though, he and his colleagues published a paper in the journal BMC Genomics reporting that a species of soil bacteria he discovered in the mid-1990s, Paenibacillus vortex, is surprisingly smart by microbial standards.

The team identified this relative intelligence by comparing the P. vortex genome with that of 502 different bacterial species whose genomes were known and, based on that comparison, calculating what Ben-Jacob calls the bugs’ “social IQ score.” The researchers counted genes associated with social function, such as those allowing bacteria to communicate and process environmental information and to synthesize chemicals that are useful when competing with other organisms. P. vortex and two other Paenibacillus strains have more of those genes than any of the other 499 bacteria Ben-Jacob studied, including pathogenic bacteria such as Escherichia coli, indicating a capacity for “exceptionally brilliant social skills.”

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