Are Bacteria Far More Intelligent Than We Realize?

mmw_prokaryote_1110Bacteria can distinguish “self” from “other,” and between their relatives and strangers. They can communicate, prey in packs, and have social intelligence. Are microbes far more sentient than we give them credit for? Miller-McCune writes:

Strictly by the numbers, the vast majority — estimated by many scientists at 90 percent — of the cells in what you think of as your body are actually bacteria, not human cells. In fact, most of the life on the planet is probably composed of bacteria.

These facts by themselves may trigger existential shock: People are partly made of pond scum. But beyond that psychic trauma, a new and astonishing vista unfolds. In a series of recent findings, researchers describe bacteria that communicate in sophisticated ways, take concerted action, influence human physiology, alter human thinking and work together to bioengineer the environment. These findings may foreshadow new medical procedures that encourage bacterial participation in human health. They clearly set out a new understanding of the way in which life has developed on Earth to date, and of the power microbes have to regulate both the global environment and the internal environment of the human beings they inhabit and influence so profoundly.

Bacteria use chemicals to talk to each other and to nonbacterial cells as well. These exchanges work much as human language does, says Herbert Levine of the University of California, San Diego’s Center for Theoretical Biological Physics. With colleagues from Tel Aviv University, Levine proposed in the August 2004 Trends in Microbiology that bacteria “maintain linguistic communication,” enabling them to engage in intentional behavior both singly and in groups. In other words, they have “social intelligence.”

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  • alden

    no examples= weak science. I’m a bio-chem student so I understand this stuff to at least a moderate extent. To say that bacteria communicate in a way equivalent to people is extreme hyperbole. Also, it’s true that mitochondria were originally bacteria, but to say that 90 percent of our cells are derived from bacteria is simply false. This article is weak and wrong

  • Nfs

    Nice! I always thought that there are some small Alien things control our bodies from inside ;-)

  • Nfs

    Nice! I always thought that there are some small Alien things control our bodies from inside ;-)

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