HOUSTON, Aug. 23, 2006 -- New research published by Rice University biologists in this week's issue of Nature finds that even the simplest of social creatures single-celled amoebae have the ability not only to recognize their own family members but also to selectively discriminate in favor of them.
The study provides further proof of the surprisingly sophisticated social behavior of microbes, which have been shown to exhibit levels of cooperation more typically associated with animals.
"By recognizing kin, a social microbe can direct altruistic behavior towards its relatives," said postdoctoral researcher Natasha Mehdiabadi, the lead author of the study.
Recognizing one's own family is a common trait among animals be they chimpanzees, ground squirrels or paper wasps and because kin recognition can strongly influence cooperative behaviors it can also significantly impact the social evolution of species.
While scientists have repeatedly documented cases of kin recognition, the Rice study is among the first to document the more sophisticated trait of kin discrimination in a social microorganism.
The new study is based on an examination of single-celled Dictyostelium purpureum, a common soil microbe that feeds on bacteria. In the wild, when food runs short, D. purpureum aggregate together by the thousands, forming first into long narrow slugs and then into hair-like fruiting bodies. Resembling miniature mushrooms, these fruiting bodies consist of both a freestanding stalk and the spores that sit atop it. Ultimately, the spores are carried away, usually on the legs of passing creatures, to start the life cycle all over again. But in order to disperse the spores, some of the colony's individuals must altruistically sacrifice themselves in order to make the stalk.
Mehdiabadi and others in the lab of Rice evolutionary biologists Joan Strassmann and David Queller sought to find out whether D. purpureum
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