Your gut is a complex marketplace where microbes trade, study shows

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Economic activities are not just limited to humans, but microbes in our gut are also involved in trading that enables them to prosper as well as multiply, researchers have suggested.

According to a study by researchers from Claremont Graduate University, Boston University, and Columbia University, which has been published in the open access journal PLOS ONE, despite being ubiquitous, microbes interact with each other in complicated ways that are not well understood.

Researchers say that majority of microbial life exists in complex communities where the exchange of molecules and proteins is vital for their survival and they trade these essential resources to promote their own growth in ways that are similar to countries that exchange goods in modern economic markets.

Researchers applied the general equilibrium theory of economics, which explains the exchange of resources in complex economies, to understand the trade of resources in microbial communities.

The researchers experimented with a synthetic consortium of Escherichia coli cells. They manipulated the cells’ DNA to artificially alter the production and export rate of the cells, and then tested the population growth implications of the theory.

The results confirmed the team’s predictions. As trade increased, the bacterial communities grew faster. And while all of the microbes benefited from trade, the more a bacteria strain exported, the slower it grew relative to the importing bacteria strain.

“That means that species face a tradeoff between growing their communities faster versus increasing their own population relative to that of a trading partner,” said Joshua Tasoff, an economics professor at Claremont Graduate University.

The findings open the door for the application of other economic concepts that could improve our understanding of microbial and other biological communities, Tasoff said.