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Bacteria fight big. When they meet competitors, they are as aggressive and bloodthirsty as they come. ERC grantee Kevin Foster studies how bacteria wage war against each other. His aim is to understand what led to the evolution of such extreme competitive behaviours, and how to exploit them for our own health.

Bacteria are often extremely aggressive towards one another. They release toxins into their environment, stab neighbours with poisoned molecular spears, even sacrifice themselves if it means delivering the final blow. This contrasts with animal contests, where a large body of work has sought to understand why species, from damselflies to deer, are so reluctant to fight one another.

Professor Kevin Foster, from the University of Oxford, uses bacteria’s extreme aggression as a model to provide a new perspective on how organisms have evolved competitive behaviours. To be able to understand bacterial war tactics, his research team combines several tools: competition experiments, game theory, experimental evolution, and molecular genetics. The researchers develop techniques to provide images of bacterial battlegrounds at a molecular scale. Using fluorescent dyes that are produced when bacteria fight allows the lab to follow the action in real time, and has already exposed some interesting strategies. For example, that some strains respond as a collective to attacks, with some individuals literally acting as sentinels for the rest of the colony. While these behaviours are frequent in animals, for the first time they have been observed in these microorganisms.

Understanding how bacteria fight can help us learn how they spread, why some species are more successful than others, and maybe how to stop them. Ultimately, Prof. Foster’s goal is to be able to describe how different species compete with each other, and whether weaponised bacteria can be used to kill pathogens and fight infection.


After degrees in Cambridge and Sheffield (UK), Kevin Foster worked in Texas, Berlin and Helsinki before starting his group as a Bauer Fellow at Harvard in 2006. In 2010 he returned to Oxford with an ERC Starting Grant. Since 2011, he is Professor of Evolutionary Biology and now holds a joint appointment between the Department of Zoology and the Department of Biochemistry at Oxford