The example of the “myxobacter” species of bacteria was used in a presentation I saw a couple of years ago at David Gurteen’s 3rd Knowledge Management Conference, at which David Snowden’s management of complexity was a main theme. [Blogged earlier]. I couldn’t be sure who’s presentation it was and I was unable to track down the original slides, so I did a bit of web research myself. Someone over on MoQ-Discuss wanted a real life example of “emergence” …. this is what I posted a few days ago …
Is it a bacterium, is it a worm, is it a mushroom ?
In an earlier thread when I was trying to explain emergence, I made a passing reference to a particular bacterial lifecycle that produces some very strange emergent effects from many “atomic” individuals, that look very much a higher form of purposeful life. Those bacteria are a group called Myxobacter, and there are several different species that all exhibit variations on this lifecycle.
(1) As bacteria, their normal single-celled life is to sit around in their nutrient medium and multiply individually (vegetatively) by cell division. Drop a few specimens on an agar Petri-dish, and they grow into a spreading slimy mass on the surface. Situation normal.
(2) When they hit limits to nutrients (ie they “sense” starvation) “they” do some funny things collectively.
(3) They start to “collaborate” – they start to “move” in blobs en-mass – sometimes the motion is wavelike – like a flat caterpillar – sometimes sliding like a slimy worm or slug – as if looking to find more nutrients.
(4) If they continue to starve, they (collectively) try a different strategy. They stop travelling and form fruiting bodies and lift them up on stalks – like a mushroom made of zillions of collaborating individuals – they individually start to specialize in their roles in the collective whole. When ready, the fruiting bodies burst and release spore-like individuals into the environment.
(5) Some lucky individuals land somewhere moist and nutritious, and the cycle starts over again from (1)
The question that seems to raise itself is … Clearly the single celled-bacteria are already alive in our biological sense, but as individuals have have no complex structures like brains, nervous systems, or even primitive limbs for locomoton, such as we might find in higher order living things.
Is that purposeful quest for nutrition, and the strategies for moving and dispersing to find it, inherent in each individual, or is it emergent from the complex arrangement and interaction of the collection ?
As one commenter pointed out that behaviour is very close to that of the developing human zygote, rather than that of single-celled individuals.