Games that Microbes Play: Cooperation and Cheating in the Microscopic Realm
Humans often have to engage in strategic decision-making, deciding whether to bluff in poker or shovel the sidewalk after a blizzard. Game theory, a branch of mathematics focused on analyzing interacting “players,” has provided significant insight into these situations. Perhaps surprisingly, game theory has also been tremendously influential in our understanding of animal behavior and evolution. Examples include alarm calls to protect the group from predators and the evolution of 50/50 sex ratios. Recently, evolutionary game theory has even been applied to micro-organisms. In this talk, I will describe how experiments in the lab with micro-organisms have provided insight into the evolution of cooperation via the production of a “public good,” given that non-contributing “cheats” can take advantage of the cooperating cells. These experiments have implications for understanding the human microbiome and the evolution of antibiotic resistance.