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If Bacteria Can Do It...Learning community skills from microbes

One of the greatest joys of being a scientist is continuously having the opportunity to see the world in new ways. At a national laboratory or research university, you’re exposed to many different fields of research, from which you can always glean something useful. My current fascination is learning about microbial communities and how they thrive by achieving just the right balance between cooperation and competition.

My training is in biochemistry and cell biology, but I was exposed to medical microbiology during a stint as a faculty member in a medical school. There my view of microbes was tainted by the perspective of my colleagues, who saw them either as pathogens or as opportunistic organisms that contaminated tissue-culture plates. My view of cell communities, conversely, came from my research in cancer biology, where I saw the cooperative cell assemblies of normal tissues as driven by genetic programming. Without this enforced cooperation, cells would become selfish, dooming the organism to death by cancer.

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