Genius Microbes

January 26, 2011

Brit Trogen


When it comes to intelligence, the best way to set yourself apart is with a good old-fashioned IQ test. Are you a Lohan or a Hawking? A Lloyd Christmas or a Sheldon Cooper? Luckily for us, the internet is riddled with easy-to-use quizzes that will quickly rank you on the continuum of human intellect. All conveniently scaled to the semi-genius range.  


But for millennia, bacteria have struggled to get by without any equivalent measure of "intellectual" worth. Researchers at Tel Aviv University have now remedied this problem by developing an IQ test for bacteria. Of course, you won't be able to compare your IQ to E. coli any time soon. Bacterial intelligence is measured by S-IQ: social-IQ. In other words, how well they communicate and grow.   


Examining the genomes of over 500 sequenced bacterial strains, researchers looked at genes important for communication, information processing, and decision making. What they found was enlightening; bacteria rarely function as simple solitary organisms (like humans), but are highly complex and social, like the Borg. They work as a collective brain. And like any brain, some are smarter than others.


Everyday pathogenic bacteria aren't actually very "smart," falling only at the average S-IQ level. The highest known scores came from Paenibacillus vortex and two other species of Paenibacillus bacteria; strains that don't cause disease in humans, but are known for their pattern-forming and social behavior (see above). These strains scored in the "genius range" - around 160 if compared to an average IQ of 100. 


Ultimately, the goal is to harness these genius microbes for use in biotechnology. But in the meantime, I'm sure they'll just be lording their high S-IQ's over all the other bacteria for eons to come.



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