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"Amoeba Cheaters" -- The Discovery Files

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New research out of Rice University and Baylor College of Medicine says that cheaters may prosper in the short term, but over time they seem doomed to fail, at least in the microscopic world of amoebas where natural selection favors the noble.

Credit: NSF/Karson Productions

Audio Transcript:


I'm Bob Karson with the discovery files -- new advances in science and engineering from the National Science Foundation.

(SOUND EFFECT: suburban amoeba neighborhood) Somewhere there's an amoeba community just trying to make a life for itself (preferably on some rotting vegetation, or on a forest floor) -- doing the usual amoeba things -- eating, reproducing but when food supplies begin to run out, everyone comes together as a group to try to find a new food source.

Collectively the group is known as a slime mold, though they're neither slimy nor moldy. They're just a big ol' moving clump of amoebas or amoebae (either one's correct) going toward a light source, since light means food. As the clump reaches the destination, some of the amoebae must sacrifice their lives, turning into a dead cellulose stalk. The other amoebae pile on and release spores to be carried from that high point to other locations by outside forces, like wind or insects.

New research out of Rice University and Baylor College of Medicine is taking a careful look at "cheaters" in the community. The kind of amoeba whose gene codes tell them to avoid being up front where they might have to die for the cause, and to actually push others up to the front.

You'd think that logically the cheaters would prosper. But a small percentage of the amoebas refuse to be pushed around. Over successive generations these cheater resistant amoebae came to dominate -- keeping the cheaters in place, and forcing them out of the reproductive chain. Even nature doesn't like a cheater.

"The Discovery Files" covers projects funded by the government's National Science Foundation. Federally sponsored research -- brought to you, by you! Learn more at or on our podcast.

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