There May Be a Complex Market Living in Your Gut

Image credit: Claremont Graduate University

Researchers apply economic concepts to explore the mysteries of the microbial world

Conventional theories used by economists for the past 150 years to explain how societies buy, sell, and trade goods and services may be able to unlock mysteries about the behavior of microbial life on earth, according to a study by researchers from Claremont Graduate University, Boston University, and Columbia University.

The findings, published July 29 in the open access journal PLOS ONE, provide new insight into the behavior of the planet’s oldest and tiniest life forms, and also create a new framework for examining larger questions about biological evolution and productivity.

Joshua Tasoff, an economics professor at Claremont Graduate University, conducted the study with Michael Mee of the Department of Biomedical Engineering at Boston University and Harris Wang of the Department of Systems Biology at Columbia University.

“As an economist, I don’t normally get to experiment with a living organism’s DNA,” Tasoff said. “By developing an economic framework of microbial trade, we can use off-the-shelf economic concepts and theories to better understand how these microbial communities work.”

Microbes, tiny organisms too small to see with the naked eye, are everywhere. In the air, soil, and even inside the human body. In humans, bacteria cells outnumber human cells 10-to-1. Though some microbes cause disease, others are essential for plant and animal life, and humankind could not endure without them.

Although microbes are ubiquitous, they interact with each other in complicated ways that are not well understood. A large fraction of microbial life exists in complex communities where the exchange of molecules and proteins is vital for their survival. They trade these essential resources to promote their own growth in ways that are similar to countries that exchange goods in modern economic markets.

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