Multicellularity inherently involves a number of cooperative behaviors that are potentially susceptible to exploitation but can be protected by mechanisms such as kin discrimination. Discrimination of kin from non-kin has been observed in swarms of the bacterium Bacillus subtilis, but the underlying molecular mechanism has been unknown. We used genetic, transcriptomic, and bioinformatic analyses to uncover kin recognition factors in this organism. Our results identified many molecules involved in cell-surface modification and antimicrobial production and response. These genes varied significantly in expression level and mutation phenotype among B. subtilis strains, suggesting interstrain variation in the exact kin discrimination mechanism used. Genome analyses revealed a substantial diversity of antimicrobial genes present in unique combinations in different strains, with many likely acquired by horizontal gene transfer. The dynamic combinatorial effect derived from this plethora of kin discrimination genes creates a tight relatedness cutoff for cooperation that has likely led to rapid diversification within the species. Our data suggest that genes likely originally selected for competitive purposes also generate preferential interactions among kin, thus stabilizing multicellular lifestyles.
Lyons, N. A., Kraigher, B., Stefanic, P., Mandic-Mulec, I., & Kolter, R. (2016). A combinatorial kin discrimination system in bacillus subtilis. Current Biology, 26(6), 733–742. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2016.01.032