If Germs and Animals Help One Another: Why Shouldn’t We?

By Shlomo Maital


  The world would be a thousand times better if only more of us helped each other.  Research has shown that even animals behave altruistically, i.e. help other animals even when they themselves do not benefit directly.  Now comes research by a Hebrew U. scientist, Prof. Hanna Engelberg-Kulka, which shows that even bacteria are altruistic.

   Prof. Engelberg-Kulka has shown that for some bacteria [specifically, one type with the name Escherichia coli], when their food supply falls sharply,  90 per cent of the bacteria spontaneously choose to die, so that the remaining 10 per cent can survive.  How does this happen?  (No, it’s not a Mother Teresa brain that recites, “it is a far far better thing I do…”, or “in my death, my life finds new meaning”).  Simply this – each bacterium has genes that produce a toxin (that kills it) and an anti-toxin (that neutralizes the toxin).  When the food supply declines, these genes stop working.  They turn off.  The anti-toxin deteriorates faster than the toxin.  So mostly the toxin remains, and kills the cell.

   It is, of course, evolution that is responsible.  An accidental mutation created this effect, and the bacteria who luckily had it survived while those who didn’t disappeared. 

   If bacteria find that they need to sacrifice for others in order to survive,  if our planet faces shrinking resources and food supply, and if we humans need to help one another to survive by sharing resources more equally – why don’t we?  Why aren’t we are smart as bacteria, that don’t even have a brain? 

      And is it still true that human societies that are more selfless, more altruistic, more giving, will prevail and endure over societies built around Wall St. avarice and greed?  The jury is still out on that one.