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Financial Advice from Germs

Posted: 08/03/2013 6:39 pm

For many, the totality of economics can be somewhat unnerving, especially when it comes to personal financial security. We live in a capitalist world driven by free markets and personal investments. Making the right choices with money could mean incredible success, while a mistake could cost someone their future.

There are a number of human financial gurus working to help you become wealthy, and their advice is based on years if not decades of knowledge and experience. However, there are a number of microbial economic geniuses who have centuries of expertise developing 'economic' success. While germs are better known as contagion than counsel, research over the last few decades has revealed that they also can teach us a few things about how to manage our money.

The concept of microbes as models for the financial sector started almost half a century ago. The primary goal was to understand how Salmonella typhimuirum managed to transfer antibiotic resistance from bacteria native to calves to the ones that infect humans. They found that the bacteria were social, sharing both information and assets with others in the calf stomach such that they could gain the tools needed to resist an antibiotic attack. These bacteria then traveled from the farm to the fork. Once ingested, the bacteria would then share resistance to others in the human gut. While incredibly bad for the human, this means of sharing was excellent for the pathogen's survival.

What became very clear was that bacteria had a social agenda such that they could share resources when necessary to continue the development of financially strong societies. This action, a true harbinger of socialism, was only the tip of the iceberg.

In 2009, a group from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography took a closer look at how microbes act in a cyclical environment to maintain "financial" stability. What they found was not unusual to biologists but in an economic sense, offered more perspective on a similar cycle in modern economics. Building upon the initial socialist mentality of the 1960s, these researchers found that sharing was associated with the seasons.

In the bullish times of summer, all the bacteria were working hard to grow their monetary -- or in this case, carbon -- reserves such that there was little unemployment and for the most part, there was harmony. However, when the seasons turned towards the bears of winter, there was a significant shift in bacterial activity. The major players went dormant while there was a surge of different bacteria, known as the Archea. These migrant workers were able to withstand the harsh weather and work with less carbon, making them perfect for the job. As for the bigger carbon wasters, they utilized what they could and sequestered the rest until the summer returned.

The idea that bacteria could take advantage of migrant workers suggested that there may be a capitalist aspect to microbial life. Earlier this year, Dr. Ute Römling at the Karolinska Institute published a commentary highlighting how the bacterium Pseudomonas aeruginosa proved the proposition to be correct.

P. aeruginosa is known to form corporations, known as biofilms, in which thousands if not millions of bacteria survive and thrive. For decades, how they managed to form these corporate entities was never understood. It turns out that the bacteria used a positive reinforcement model, although instead of stock options, P. aeruginosa uses a sugar, called Psl. A bacterium rich in Psl would start the company and grow it by leaving trails of the tasty sugar. As more staff joined the company, Psl production would increase. Over time, the biofilm corp would grow in both size and success.

As with free-market models, the capitalist success of P. aeruginosa has one condition: There has to be a venture capitalist willing to start the company. While great for corporate economics, the model is rather poor for helping the average individual. Yet, this week, a collaborative effort of universities in Australia and the U.K. finally offered some microbial advice that we can use to better our financial standing and perhaps our overall security.

The paper focuses on how Escherichia coli works to both spend and invest in order to keep each individual bacterium financially content. To become independently wealthy, the bacteria have developed a trade-off' mechanism to invest when resources are low and to spend and reproduce when the environment is rich.

By looking at the difference between the stress response and the development of offspring, the authors revealed that in highly stressful times, there was a lack of reproduction as most of the resources were given to ensuring the bacterium could withstand the changes going on in the microcosm surrounding it. When the stresses were lessened or disappeared, the bacteria formed more daughters and increased the overall population.

The bacteria showed that reproduction, while necessary for the species, was actually not as important as making sure there were enough resources for individual survival. In a human sense, without an appropriate nest egg, mass spending on resources -- which as many parents will admit, includes having children -- can threaten the future of the individual cell and the population in general. In contrast, by working to attain a threshold of financial security, including giving up luxury items and other non-essential purchases, an individual can grow their wealth to the point where they can build a family and live happily into the future.

The financial lessons from germs may seem simple to many and perhaps might not be entirely transferrable to the human experience. While some are fairly obvious, including work hard to grow wealth and don't overstretch your resources, others may not be so easily adoptable. Yet, these harder lessons, such as treating other wealth builders with respect, offering the less fortunate opportunities, communicating and sharing in a positive manner, and avoiding the pathogens could help to improve our overall financial situation. After all, with millennia of experience behind them, germs seem to have more than enough knowledge and experience to keep their -- and potentially our -- economies solid.

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