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Animals have evolved a wide diversity of aggressive behavior often based upon the careful monitoring of other individuals. Bacteria are also capable of aggression, with many species using toxins to kill or inhibit their competitors. Like animals, bacteria also have systems to monitor others during antagonistic encounters, but how this translates into behavior remains poorly understood. Here, we use colonies of Escherichia coli carrying colicin-encoding plasmids as a model for studying antagonistic behavior. We show that in the absence of threat, dispersed cells with low reproductive value produce colicin toxins spontaneously, generating efficient pre-emptive attacks. Cells can also respond conditionally to toxins released by clonemates via autoinduction or other genotypes via competition sensing. The strength of both pre-emptive and responsive attacks varies widely between strains. We demonstrate that this variability occurs easily through mutation by rationally engineering strains to recapitulate the diversity in naturally occurring strategies. Finally, we discover that strains that can detect both competitors and clonemates are capable of massive coordinated attacks on competing colonies. This collective behavior protects established colonies from competitors, mirroring the evolution of alarm calling in the animal world.

Original publication




Journal article


Curr Biol

Publication Date





345 - 355.e4


alarm pheromone, collective behavior, complex behavior, evolutionary biology, game theory, mibrobe, microorganism, tit-for-tat, warfare