War Tactics: Bacteria Can ‘Divide and Conquer’ to Kill the Enemies


Some types of bacteria can deal with their enemies in a peculiar manner. They release toxins and make their neighbors attack each other. This tactic can be used by scientists to help fight infections.

The study was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by researchers at the Imperial College London and the University of Oxford. Researchers experimented and used mathematical models to see the ‘warfare’ led by bacteria.

The team used a single competitor at first, but the tactic used by the bacteria backfired. The one that was provoked counterattacked with a potent toxin and harmed its provoker.

But when there are three or more strains of bacteria, the one that provokes the others will make them compete and attack each other. The competitors killed each other, and the provoking strain prevailed.

Manipulating Microbial Aggression

The senior author of the study is Dr. Despoina Mavridou (Department of Life Sciences at Imperial), explaining:

“This behavior is strongly reminiscent of the human ‘divide and conquer’ strategy, famously delineated by Niccolò Machiavelli in his book The Art of War and shows that bacteria are capable of very elaborate warfare tactics.”

Lead author of the study, Dr. Diego Gonzalez (the University of Lausanne) added that they could use this behavior in eliminating strains of bacteria inside the human body:

“We could envisage exploiting provocation in alternative antimicrobial approaches. For example, exposing established bacterial communities to low levels of known antimicrobials could promote warfare and cross-elimination of different strains.”

Not only could the researchers use it inside the human body, but even in the environment. There are layers of bacteria in industrial water pipes that cannot be easily removed. The technique can also be used to treat bacterial infections.

Dr. Mavridou concludes that this method makes the toxin of the provoker “more effective than what would be expected based on its real toxicity. Using toxin-mimicking chemicals, we could potentially manipulate microbial aggression to our own benefit.”


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