Research Topic

Science and Technology of Microbial Intelligences

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All microbes, from viruses to protozoa, make decisions throughout their lifespan. They sense, interpret, and even manipulate changing internal homeostatic states and/or local ambient and host environments, often staying with the same strategy or switching between alternative strategies of differential fitness ...

All microbes, from viruses to protozoa, make decisions throughout their lifespan. They sense, interpret, and even manipulate changing internal homeostatic states and/or local ambient and host environments, often staying with the same strategy or switching between alternative strategies of differential fitness to determine, for example, vegetative and reproductive cycles, phenotype, motility, stress resistance, stages of infection, and social cell-cell interactions. Successful strategies can increase a microbe’s viability and/or fecundity and may vary with inherited life-history traits, random or directed mutations and epigenetic modifications, and traditional forms of dual-process nonassociative and associative learning and memory. Strategy acquisition, storage, modification, selection, and execution by microbes frequently require the coordination of sensory transduction pathways, gene regulatory networks, membrane and intracellular transport systems, metabolism, and motility and adhesion apparati, making microbes highly complex computational agents.

Recognizing the dynamic goal-directed computational nature of microbe behavior and underlying cell physiology, modern virologists, bacteriologists, phycologists, and protistologists now revisit the idea, first more-or-less anecdotally reported by early twentieth-century scientists, that both solitary and colonial microbes are intelligent. The kinds of nonsocial and social intelligences evolved in microbes might not attain that observed for phylogentically more recent eukaryotic organisms. Nevertheless, the controversial idea of self-deterministic microbial behavior has profound scientific, technological, and ethical implications. For example, the ability of microbes to solve ecological dilemmas within a single generation or over many generations has been found to play significant roles in many contexts that affect the life and evolutionary trajectories of individual microbes, their communities, and environments, including, but not limited to, host-parasite and parasite-parasite interactions, mate selection, foraging, collective defenses against predators and stressors, kin recognition, quorum sensing, and social altruism and cheating. Moreover, continuing advances in systems and synthetic biology not only allow scientists to investigate the phenomena and mechanisms of microbial intelligences, but also provide tools to exploit and improve microbial intelligences for technological purposes, such as unconventional computing devices for theragnostic and regenerative medicine, payload delivery, industrial fabrication, bioremediation and -extraction, and green energy production. Lastly, despite the great value such exciting technologies have for improving human society, there remains ethical issues concerning the invasive study and contained use of microbial intelligences. In this Frontiers in Microbiology Research Topic, we solicit manuscripts that further elaborate the science, technology, and possible ethical considerations of microbial intelligences falling within the cross-specialty areas of Cellular and Infection Microbiology, Evolutionary and Genomic Microbiology, and Microbiotechnology, Ecotoxicology, and Bioremediation.


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