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Bacteria offer insights into human decision making

Scientists studying how bacteria under stress collectively weigh and initiate different survival strategies say they have gained new insights into how humans make strategic decisions that affect their health, wealth and the fate of others in society.

Their study, published this week in the early online edition of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, was accomplished when the scientists applied the mathematical techniques used in physics to describe the complex interplay of genes and proteins that colonies of bacteria rely upon to initiate different survival strategies during times of environmental stress. Using the mathematical tools of theoretical physics and chemistry to describe complex biological systems is becoming more commonplace in the emerging field of theoretical biological physics.

The authors of the new study are theoretical physicists and chemists at the University of California, San Diego's Center for Theoretical Biological Physics, the nation's center for this activity funded by the National Science Foundation, and Tel Aviv University in Israel. They say that how genes are turned on and off in bacteria living under conditions of stress not only shed light on how complex biological systems interact, but provide insights for economists and political scientists applying mathematical models to describe complex human decision making.

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