By studying bacteria which are living under stressful conditions, scientists have gained fresh insights into the manner of human decision making, especially crucial ones.
Experts at the University of California, San Diego's Center for Theoretical Biological Physics, the nation's center for this activity funded by the National Science Foundation, and Tel Aviv University in Israel, used the bacterium Bacillus subtilis in their study.
Eshel Ben Jacob, a physics professor at Tel Aviv University and a fellow of the Center for Theoretical Biological Physics, and co-authors Josi Onuchic, a professor of physics at UCSD and a co-director of the center, Peter Wolynes, a professor of physics and chemistry at UCSD and Daniel Schultz, a postdoctoral researcher at UCSD applied the mathematical techniques used in physics to describe the complex interplay of genes and proteins that colonies of bacteria rely upon to initiate different survival strategies during times of environmental stress.
Ben Jacob said: "Everyone knows the need to try to postpone important decisions until the last moment but apparently there are simple creatures that do it well and therefore can really teach us-the bacteria."
Onuchic added: "We have shown how the bacteria do this complex calculation according to well-defined principles. We learned a simple rule: Anyone who needs to make a decision under pressure in life, especially if it is a possible death decision, will take its time. She or he will review the trends of change, will render all possible chances and risks, and only then react."
"Another interesting fact is that the same cells in the same environment, in this case, bacteria in the colony, can actually in a statistical matter choose two different outcomes: sporulation or competence. This leads us to speculate whether similar ideas can be extrapolated to explain the decisions of cells to develop cancer: Can a similar cell in a tissue make the decision to duplicate normally or to modify into a cancer cell? How does this stochastic process affect life, biology, evolution and disease is an interesting challenge that will be at the center of questions answered at the interface of the physical and life sciences."
The research was published in the online edition of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.