Eshel Ben Jacob, a professor of physics at Tel Aviv University, beautified photos of bacteria growing in Petri dishes with a bit of color and shading to create an amazing collection. They illustrate the coping strategies that bacteria have learned to employ, strategies that involve cooperation through communication. The bacteria in their struggle to defeat our best antibiotics use these selfsame strategies. Thus, if we understand the mechanisms behind the patterns, we can learn how to outsmart the bacteria – for example, by tampering with their communication – in our ongoing battle for our health.
In a sense, the strikingly beautiful organization of the pattern reflects the underlying social intelligence of the bacteria. The once controversial idea that bacteria cooperate to solve challenges has become commonplace, with the discovery of specific channels of communication between the cells and specific mechanisms facilitating the exchange of genetic information. Retrospectively, these capabilities should not have been seen as so surprising, as bacteria set the stage for all life on Earth and indeed invented most of the processes of biology. As we try to stay ahead of the disease-causing varieties of these versatile creatures, we must use our own intelligence to understand them. These images remind us never to underestimate our opponent. They are also perfect examples of naturally occurring fractals.