When considering the behavior of bacteria, the word "social" doesn't often come to mind.
Yet some bacteria are quite social, chief among them Myxococcus xanthus, a soil-dwelling bacterium that organizes itself into multi-cellular, three-dimensional structures made up of thousands of cells that work together to hunt for food and survive under harsh conditions.
"For the first 100 years of microbiology, researchers were trying to find model organisms to study bacteria, and most were selected because they had some medical or industrial significance influence, such as E. coli, and because they grow very well in the standard test tube," says Oleg Igoshin, an assistant professor of bioengineering at Rice University. "But when you base your choice on their behavior in a test tube, and not on social behavior or spatial structure, you lose some interesting species to study.
"The story is quite different for Myxococcus xanthus," he adds. "They are a very social bacteria that form really cool structures, and rely on each other for survival."