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In these situations, are cells really dying for the benefit of others? Or are they being killed, forced to die by their neighbors that are fitter in some way or in better situations? (from a naive reader)

Heidi replies: Regardless of whether the cells are dying or being killed, the resulting wrinkles benefit the entire biofilm by making the surface much more repellant to antibiotics and antiseptics than mutant biofilms that cannot wrinkle (see the article linked at the end of the fourth paragraph in the post). The question of whether the cells are dying or being killed by their neighbors has not yet been elucidated. I can imagine a scenario in which fitter neighbors near the regions of high cell density in the biofilms secrete a signal that induces cell death in the neighboring cells and in this case the cells would be forced to die by their neighbors. On the other hand, the cells could be packed together so tightly by the matrix components that the increasing external force on cells triggers death. In this case cells would indeed be dying for the benefit of others as this cell death relieves tension at the biofilm surface (although one could argue that the cells are indirectly being killed by neighbors, since cell crowding causes the excess force on cells). Death could also require both a signaling molecule and the increasing pressure on cells. Elucidating the signal and the resulting mechanism of death in these cells will no doubt provide an exciting addition the field of bacterial programmed cell death.

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