A closer look at microbes reveals there’s big business going on in their very small world, and sometimes we are part of the transaction, scientists say.
A team of researchers including Northern Arizona University scientist Nancy Collins Johnson argue in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that microbes, like many animals, are 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 [higher] organisms—for example, when primates groom each other in exchange for food—it is difficult to imagine markets emerging” on such a small scale.
Yet all organisms, including humans, cooperate with beneficial microbes, she noted. “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.