In animals and plants, social structure can reduce conflict within populations and bias aggression toward competing populations; however, for bacteria in the wild it remains unknown whether such population-level organization exists. Here, we show that environmental bacteria are organized into socially cohesive units in which antagonism occurs between rather than within ecologically defined populations. By screening approximately 35,000 possible mutual interactions among Vibrionaceae isolates from the ocean, we show that genotypic clusters known to have cohesive habitat association also act as units in terms of antibiotic production and resistance. Genetic analyses show that within populations, broad-range antibiotics are produced by few genotypes, whereas all others are resistant, suggesting cooperation between conspecifics. Natural antibiotics may thus mediate competition between populations rather than solely increase the success of individuals.
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