Posted December 21st 2010 at 11:35 am by
in Uncategorized

What Nightclub Crowds and Microbes Have in Common

MicrobesAbove, many microbes living amongst each other, by Michael Scott on flickr, and a night scene in downtown Athens, Georgia by Reuben A. Buford May.

When Professor Reuben A. Buford May (a Sociologist) and Hector H. Hernandez (a Microbiologist) met for the first time, they had some trouble understanding one another’s research. Mr. May studies human nightlife behavior – how people can appear to be integrated in a downtown club or bar scene, but are actually vying for space through a complex system of distinct social groups. Mr. Hernandez keeps his nose in a microscope.  He studies the relationships between members of microbial communities.

They found a meeting-point in the word social.  That’s right, microbes interact with one another in a way that can be described as social.  As Mr. Hernandez said:

When you think about humans, you think about how [they] can pick up traits: they can change their clothing; they can do things that modify their appearance, that will allow them to integrate with other groups and go across different [social] boundaries.  Microbes have that capability too, and they do it in several ways.

To find out what those ways are,

[wpaudio url=”http://colabradio.mit.edu/wp-content/uploads/2009/12/hectorreuben_final.mp3″ text=”listen to this fascinating conversation between Mr. May and Mr. Hernandez:” dl=”0″]

You’ll notice two main themes in their conversation.  The obvious theme is this comparison of human behavior and microbe behavior.  The second theme, equally interesting, is on what two different research methodologies for two different disciplines, sociology and microbiology, can offer one another.

Glossary of Terms

(for maximum enjoyment of an important conversation that depends upon a few less-than-well-known terms)

A biofilm is an aggregate of microorganisms in which cells adhere to each other and/or to a surface. These adherent cells are frequently embedded within a self-produced matrix of extracellular polymeric substance (EPS). Biofilm EPS, which is also referred to as slime (although not everything described as slime is a biofilm), is a polymeric conglomeration generally composed of extracellular DNA, proteins, and polysaccharides in various configurations.

Caravanning group: Groups that consist of 4 to 10 individuals who come together around particular social identities. For instance, those patrons who identify with the “frat boy” image usually caravan with other patrons who also identify with the “frat boy” image.

Integrated segregation is the idea that individuals in public space, rather than experiencing unfettered interaction with others on the downtown streets, are socially bound to interaction with people who are like themselves—usually based on some category like age, race, or social class. Furthermore individuals who share similar characteristics are nestled together in social groupings through which they vie with one another for use of downtown public spaces.

Microbe: an organism that is unicellular or lives in a colony of cellular organisms. Microorganisms are very diverse; they include bacteria, fungi, archaea, and protists; microscopic plants (green algae); and animals such as plankton and the planarian.

Ecological niche is a term describing the relational position of a species or population in its ecosystem to each other. A shorthand definition of niche is how an organism makes a living. The ecological niche describes how an organism or population responds to the distribution of resources and competitors (e.g., by growing when resources are abundant, and when predators, parasites and pathogens are scarce) and how it in turn alters those same factors (e.g., limiting access to resources by other organisms, acting as a food source for predators and a consumer of prey).

Proteins (also known as polypeptides) are organic compounds made of amino acids arranged in a linear chain and folded into a globular form. The amino acids in a polymer are joined together by the peptide bonds between the carboxyl and amino groups of adjacent amino acid residues. Many proteins are enzymes that catalyze biochemical reactions and are vital to metabolism. Proteins also have structural or mechanical functions, such as actin and myosin in muscle and the proteins in the cytoskeleton, which form a system of scaffolding that maintains cell shape. Other proteins are important in cell signaling, immune responses, cell adhesion, and the cell cycle.

Quorum sensing is a type of decision-making process used by decentralized groups to coordinate behavior. Many species of bacteria use quorum sensing to coordinate their gene expression according to the local density of their population. Similarly, some social insects use quorum sensing to make collective decisions about where to nest. In addition to its function in biological systems, quorum sensing has several useful applications for computing and robotics.

Social capsule: a metaphorical term used to describe the collective nature of interaction in the nightlife. It consists of many caravanning groups that share similar characteristics. These caravanning groups move about in such a way that they only interact with others like themselves, thus forming a social capsule that excludes other kinds of groups. Social capsules do not have physical boundaries in a literal sense, but rather social boundaries that influence patrons’ direct engagement with others in the context of downtown. In principle these social capsules of integrated-segregation have three fundamental characteristics: 1) transparency, 2) elasticity, and 3) permeability.

Transparency: Since social capsules have no physical barriers, members of various social groups can witness others enjoying the nightlife, although they may not participate.

Elasticity: the idea that even though individuals from various social groups may be physically close to one another, they do not interact with one another. Rather, people tend only to interact with those with whom they share common characteristics. Hence, the social relationships are stretched when groups who would normally interact with one another move to different physical locations.

Permeability: Although there are social barriers to interaction between groups and individuals, there are occasions when these barriers may be penetrated. Hence social capsule walls can be penetrated by outside groups for interaction.

Post by Reuben A. Buford May, Hector Hugo Hernandez, and Alexa Timeaus Mills.

One response to “What Nightclub Crowds and Microbes Have in Common”

  1. Christina says:

    Wow, what a great conversation! As a lay-person it is really comforting to hear scientists like yourselves exploring new ideas and connections in this way. Too often academics seem to get sort of “stuck” in their disciplines with their own caravanning groups. Also societal problems that on the surface seem purely scientific can get quickly assigned to a narrow discipline that may exclude others with relevant expertise and perspectives. I think that climate change is one example of this in that climatologists don’t have all the answers. Sociologists, anthropologists, ethnographers, historians, and others from the humanities should be actively engaged in discussions, research, and problem-solving around this issue.

    Kudos to both of you for breaking out of the traditional boundaries of your disciplines to explore the value and applicability in each others’ work. I hope that others will follow your example!