Microbes swap for tiny goods in minuscule markets, researchers find

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A closer look at microbes reveals there is big business going on in their very small world, and sometimes we are part of the transaction.

An international team of researchers, including Northern Arizona University scientist Nancy Collins Johnson, argue in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that microbes, like many animals, can evolve into savvy traders, selling high and buying low.

“Although hidden from the naked eye, microorganisms are active in complex networks of trade, swapping nutrients, hoarding resources and bartering deals using many of the same strategies humans use to dominate markets,” Johnson said. “While we know such ‘biological markets’ exist in nature between cognitive organisms—for example, when primates groom each other in exchange for food—it is difficult to imagine markets emerging on a micron-scale.”

Yet all organisms, including humans, cooperate with beneficial microbes. “For example, our gut bacteria give us vitamins and nutrients and are crucial to our well-being,” Johnson said.

Microbes also cooperate with plants. Johnson and the other authors discuss diverse economic strategies employed by microbes, including avoiding bad trading partners, saving for a rainy day and building local business ties.

The paper, “Evolution of Microbial Markets,” arose from a working group of scientists at the Lorentz Center in Leiden, The Netherlands, in January 2012. Johnson, a professor in the School of Earth Sciences & Environmental Sustainability and the Department of Biological Sciences, was invited to participate in the workshop during her sabbatical while she was a Fulbright Scholar living in Prague.