Econintersect: Scientists at UCLA, Northwestern University and the University of Washington have found that aggregation behavior of bacteria has similarities to relationships in other areas, such as population growth patterns in human society and the aggregation of wealth to a few in economic systems. The general behavior in these cases is found to be related to something called Zipf’s Law. Zipf’s Law is discussed in a note at the end of this article.
To express in the simplest terms, using the time-tested vernacular, consider this terminology:
The rich get richer and the poor get poorer.
From an announcement in Northwestern University News:
Bacteria on a surface wander around and often organize into highly resilient communities known as biofilms. It turns out that they organize in a rich-get-richer pattern similar to the distribution of wealth in the U.S. economy, according to a new study by researchers at UCLA, Northwestern University and the University of Washington.
The study, published online May 8 in the journal Nature, is the first to identify the strategy by which bacteria form the microcolonies that become biofilms, which can cause lethal infections. The research may have significant implications for battling stubborn bacterial infections that do not respond to antibiotics.
Bacteria in biofilms behave very differently from free-swimming bacteria. Within biofilms, bacteria change their gene expression patterns and are far more resistant to antibiotics and the body’s immune defenses than individual, free-swimming bacteria because they mass together and are protected by a matrix of proteins, DNA and long chain-like sugar molecules called polysaccharides. This makes seemingly routine infections potentially deadly.
In summary, the “wealth” of these few aggregated bacteria far outstrips that of the multitudes who have not started on the aggregation path. The multitudes apparently face some barrier to early aggregation processes but once some critical stage is passed then the agglomeration process is favored by some kind of feedback loop.
To relate this to the wealth accumulation process, one might think of the saying:
The first million is the hardest.
Econintersect would take this analogy further. The agglomerated bacteria establish a power that is resistant to antibiotics. They become lethal to the host. Just as “superbugs” can be fatal to the human host, it might be argued that a few agglomerated “superbucks” could be fatal to their host, the human society within which they become “super”.
If the society operates in a way that rations “food” (money) so that it predominantly continues to accrue to the “superbucks” then the capabilities of the rest of the society are diminished. Continuing on such a path, eventually significant parts of the society can either die of starvation or start stealing food.
As society thus breaks down, the host for the “superbucks” dies and many of those formerly privileged individuals themselves will die of starvation as they face competition under what would amount to the law of the jungle in a battle against the starving masses.
Superbugs may be able to move from host to host and survive millions of times even as hosts continue to die. However, “superbucks” really only have one beautiful blue spherical host and there are few opportunities to move within that structure. If the host is not cared for the “superbucks” will meet the same fate as all the billions of ordinary “bucks”.
Note: Zipf’s Law has been explained in a procedural manner by Dr. Richard S. Wallace:
Take all the words in a body of text, for example today’s issue of the New York Times, and count the number of times each word appears. If the resulting histogram is sorted by rank, with the most frequently appearing word first, and so on (“a”, “the”, “for”, “by”, “and”…), then the shape of the curve is “Zipf curve” for that text. If the Zipf curve is plotted on a log-log scale, it appears as a straight line with a slope of -1.
The Zipf curve is a characteristic of human languages, and many other natural and human phenomena as well. Zipf noticed that the populations of cities followed a similar distribution. There are a few very large cities, a larger number of medium-sized ones, and a large number of small cities. If the cities, or the words of natural language, were randomly distributed, then the Zipf curve would be a flat horizontal line.
Economist Edward L. Glaeser has presented what might be called an corollary to Zipf’s Law:
…the number of people in a city is inversely proportional to the city’s rank among all cities. In other words, the biggest city is about twice the size of the second biggest city, three times the size of the third biggest city, and so forth.
- Zipf’s Law (Dr, Richard S. Wallace, A.L.I.C.E. AI Foundation)
- A Tale of Many Cities (Edward L. Glaeser, Economix, New York Times, 20 April 2010)
- Bacteria Organize According to ‘Rich-Get-Richer’ Principle (Northwestern University News, 09 May 2013)
- Bacteria organize according to “rich-get-richer” principle (R&D, 10 may 2013)
- Psl trails guide exploration and microcolony formation in Pseudomonas aeruginosa biofilms (Kun Zhao, Boo Shan Tseng, Bernard Beckerman, Fan Jin, Maxsim L. Gibiansky, Joe J. Harrison, Erik Luijten, Matthew R. Parsek and Gerard C. L. Wong, Nature, 08 May 2013)
- Microbiology: Bacterial communities as capitalist economies (Ute Romling, News & Views, Nature, 08 May 2013, subscription required)
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