Bacteria are small but not stupid: cognition, natural genetic engineering and socio-bacteriology

Stud Hist Philos Biol Biomed Sci. 2007 Dec;38(4):807-19. doi: 10.1016/j.shpsc.2007.09.010. Epub 2007 Nov 19.


Forty years' experience as a bacterial geneticist has taught me that bacteria possess many cognitive, computational and evolutionary capabilities unimaginable in the first six decades of the twentieth century. Analysis of cellular processes such as metabolism, regulation of protein synthesis, and DNA repair established that bacteria continually monitor their external and internal environments and compute functional outputs based on information provided by their sensory apparatus. Studies of genetic recombination, lysogeny, antibiotic resistance and my own work on transposable elements revealed multiple widespread bacterial systems for mobilizing and engineering DNA molecules. Examination of colony development and organization led me to appreciate how extensive multicellular collaboration is among the majority of bacterial species. Contemporary research in many laboratories on cell-cell signaling, symbiosis and pathogenesis show that bacteria utilise sophisticated mechanisms for intercellular communication and even have the ability to commandeer the basic cell biology of 'higher' plants and animals to meet their own needs. This remarkable series of observations requires us to revise basic ideas about biological information processing and recognise that even the smallest cells are sentient beings.

Publication types

  • Historical Article

MeSH terms

  • Bacteria* / genetics
  • Bacterial Physiological Phenomena
  • Bacteriology / history*
  • Biological Evolution*
  • Cognition*
  • Colony Count, Microbial
  • Cybernetics
  • DNA
  • DNA Transposable Elements
  • Genetic Engineering*
  • History, 20th Century
  • History, 21st Century
  • Humans
  • Selection, Genetic*
  • Signal Transduction
  • Species Specificity


  • DNA Transposable Elements
  • DNA