Bacterial linguistic communication and social intelligence

Trends Microbiol. 2004 Aug;12(8):366-72. doi: 10.1016/j.tim.2004.06.006.


Bacteria have developed intricate communication capabilities (e.g. quorum-sensing, chemotactic signaling and plasmid exchange) to cooperatively self-organize into highly structured colonies with elevated environmental adaptability. We propose that bacteria use their intracellular flexibility, involving signal transduction networks and genomic plasticity, to collectively maintain linguistic communication: self and shared interpretations of chemical cues, exchange of chemical messages (semantic) and dialogues (pragmatic). Meaning-based communication permits colonial identity, intentional behavior (e.g. pheromone-based courtship for mating), purposeful alteration of colony structure (e.g. formation of fruiting bodies), decision-making (e.g. to sporulate) and the recognition and identification of other colonies - features we might begin to associate with a bacterial social intelligence. Such a social intelligence, should it exist, would require going beyond communication to encompass unknown additional intracellular processes to generate inheritable colonial memory and commonly shared genomic context.

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Physiological / physiology
  • Bacteria / cytology
  • Bacteria / genetics*
  • Bacteria / metabolism
  • Bacterial Physiological Phenomena
  • Chemotaxis / physiology
  • Gene Expression Regulation, Bacterial / physiology
  • Morphogenesis
  • Signal Transduction / physiology*