Emergence in communities – from quorum sensing in bacteria to human cohorts

I got into an interesting conversation recently at a conference about what “emergence” looks like in practice. It’s one of those words that’s being increasingly used to describe the power of communities to self-organise (e.g. “emergence over authority” is one of the chapters of Whiplash by Joi Ito of Media Lab). And yet I hadn’t fully appreciated how emergence plays out in groups. At least, until I realised that emergence is what I was working on as a graduate student – without ever describing it in those terms.

My biochemistry research focused on quorum sensing in bacteria – a mechanism by which a group of bacteria of the same species coordinate to produce a compound at high population density that’s not seen when the same bugs exist at a lower density. The specific compound produced varies with the type of bacteria – sometimes it’s a pigment, others an antibiotic, or a specific set of enzymes. But essentially, quorum sensing is about how bacteria communicate as a group to decide when to make this population-dependent chemical. So I often joke that my interests in collaborative behaviour took the long route from studying uni-cellular organisms to multi-cellular ones! 

Emergence in bacteria – a lightbulb moment!
Image credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/ajc1/252308050/

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