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You want to be successful in volatile markets or ecosystems ? – Hedge your bets !

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Published on Friday, 30 October 2015

A controversial but successful investment practice in volatile markets involves hedging risk. Equal and opposite positions are taken in two different markets at the same time to minimize the overall risk of loss due to market fluctuations and maximize profit.

Recent findings from the Eco-Systems Biology research group at the Luxembourg Centre for Systems Biomedicine of the University of Luxembourg in collaboration with researchers at the Luxembourg Institute of Science and Technology suggest that, in ecosystems such as wastewater treatment plants, successful microorganisms use similar strategies for amassing resources when exposed to rapidly changing conditions. The researchers publish their results today in the article "In situ phenotypic heterogeneity among single cells of the filamentous bacterium Candidatus Microthrix parvicella".

In previous work, the group had found that a dominant bacterium, which is successful in wastewater treatment plants world-wide, fine-tunes the switching on and off of its genes to optimally take advantage of available resources including fats, proteins and carbohydrates. Now the team set out to study how this overall uptake pattern looks at the single-cell level, i.e. when individual bacterial cells within filaments are analysed rather than the whole population of these bacteria in a sample. To their surprise the team found that some cells took up specific resources while others did not. The apparent lack of behavioural uniformity within the population of Microthrix parvicella likely reflects an adaptation strategy to deal with the rapidly changing environmental conditions similar to the fluctuations seen in volatile markets. The different appetites of individual cells for certain resources likely reflect a series of bets which allow the overall population to be primed for changes in the available resources and guarantee its overall success over time. In other words, theMicrothrix parvicellapopulation seems to use a strategy analogous to that of hedge funds to amass resources and become successful over time.

The findings of the research may have implications for our understanding of how microbial populations deal with changing environmental conditions in general. For example, in the human gut microbial populations are constantly subjected to alternating feast-famine conditions driven by our eating habits. A fundamental understanding of how bacterial populations adapt to changing environments is therefore essential for us to learn how to promote the success of certain beneficial bacteria in the human gut over time.