A recent article in Nature Communications (Benomar 2015) is extremely informative.
Like many good studies, it takes assumed fixtures or mainstays of a field (in this case isolated culturing in microbiology), flips them in some way, and arrives at novel observations and conclusions.
Bacteria have usually been studied in single culture in rich media or in specific starvation conditions. These studies have contributed to understanding and characterizing their metabolism. However, they coexist in nature with other microorganisms and form consortia in which they interact to build an advanced society that drives key biogeochemical cycles.
Briefly, the authors showed co-cultured bacteria (i.e. two different species from the same environment were grown together) formed physical connections with each other to allow one species to harness the other’s unique metabolic chemistry when the former could not survive under the given starvation conditions. In turn, the donor species growth was elevated compared to isolation due to accessing it’s partners’ own metabolites.
The researchers got some great pictures.
This is another fascinating demonstration of pushing the envelope of scientific knowledge with new observations, experiments, and tools. Galileo did it with a telescope and by publishing the first recognizable modern scientific paper 400 years ago. And Esther Lederberg did it over 60 years ago when she freely shared samples of and methods for replica plating bacterial cultures.
But this isn’t why the article is extremely informative.
It serves as a metaphor for open access, science, data. More fundamentally, it shows the power of sharing in adverse circumstances. How it betters both parties. How harnessing the results of community effects is awesome.
By sharing resources - be it necessary metabolic machinery to sustain life or scholarly expertise and knowledge - we help promote growth, development, improvement. Think about these bacteria for a minute: they are among the smallest, most basic units of life on Earth. Any given species relies on massive numbers to keep in existence.
And yet it was evolutionarily favorable to evolve sharing mechanisms when entirely different species are struggling. The flip side to this is that a species’s members who didn’t evolve this trait died out.
Think about that the next time a student or colleague asks for help.