In 1859 an Australian farmer named Thomas Austin released 24 grey rabbits from Europe into the wild because it “could do little harm and might provide a touch of home, in addition to a spot of hunting.”
By the end of the century, the rabbits had begun to overrun native ecosystems, reaching nationwide numbers of 600 million by 1950. They were propagating under a principle known as the Allee effect—the observation that larger groups of animals do better at establishing populations in a new environment. Had Austin instead spread the rabbits into many smaller groups across the landscape, things might have turned out differently.
With the help of E. coli and some clever synthetic biology techniques, engineers at Duke University have now tested the limits of the Allee effect. The results have implications for both ecologists dealing with invasive species and medical practitioners fighting infections.
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