Resistance to Cheating

Dictyostelium fascinate researchers because so many of them willingly give up their lives to save others of their colony – a characteristic seen at all rungs on the ladder of life, but only recently studied at the genetic level. Commonly known as slime molds, these amoebas are not slimy and are not molds. They are independent, bacteria-munching creatures that live alone until the food at a particular location runs out.

When that happens, thousands of amoebas clump into a slug and move as a unit towards heat and light – signposts for food. When they reach their destination, amoebas at the front of the slug sacrifice themselves, turning into a dead, cellulose stalk. The rest of the amoebas pile on, combining to produce spores that sit precariously atop the stalk until wind, insects or other outside forces can carry them to a better place. The whole construct, known as a fruiting body, looks like a tiny balloon on a string.

However, during the journey some Dictyostelium do their best to stay in the back of the slug, thus avoiding the fate of the 20 percent of colony-dwellers that die for the good of the collective. The cheaters quite happily take Gen. George S. Patton’s advice to heart: Good soldiers don’t die for their country, they make others die for theirs.

By that logic, the researchers noted the cheaters should dominate. But altruistic amoebas – at least those that survive – seem to know when there’s a fink in the ranks, and draw upon weapons in their genetic code to keep cheaters at bay.  – Here

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