Bacteria can predict the future by learning things from the past

Researchers have shown through computer simulations and theoretical models that it is possible for bacteria to predict the future by learning from the past.

The study by scientists at Washington University in St. Louis has been published in eLife wherein it has been shown that bacteria have the ability to learn from their surroundings and past experiences and use that information to predict the possibilities in future.

Scientists showed through the study that bacteria could adapt to a fluctuating environment by learning its statistical regularities – as an example which nutrients tend to be correlated — and do so faster than evolutionary trial-and-error would normally allow.

While this is not purely predicting, what scientists say is that this evolutionary ‘learning’ is not rare. We humans have been learning this over thousands of years and so do other organisms around the world. The new study shows that bacteria also possess the capabilities – at least in principle – to learn correlations from recent experience and adapt their future behavior accordingly but within in a short period of time i.e. even within their lifetime.

The important thing to understand here is that bacteria do so without the presence of a central nervous system organ – the brain. These bacteria are able to achieve evolutionary learning through a simple circuit present in them.

Three enabling ingredients must be present, though. The researchers stipulate that this kind of learning can only happen: if bacteria have more regulators than appear to be necessary; if the regulators themselves are self-activated; and if the bacteria operate under the real-world “nonlinear” conditions that are frequently approximated away in models.

The new study also provides new hypotheses for why some bacteria might be using seemingly redundant regulators or ways to modulate its different pathways.

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