Cannibalism: a social behavior in sporulating Bacillus subtilis


  • Editor: Bernardo González

Correspondence: José Eduardo González-Pastor, Department of Molecular Evolution, Centro de Astrobiología (CSIC-INTA), Carretera de Ajalvir km 4, Torrejón de Ardoz 28850, Madrid, Spain. Tel.: +34 91 520 6470; fax: +34 91 520 1074; e-mail:


A social behavior named cannibalism has been described during the early stages of sporulation of the Gram-positive Bacillus subtilis. This phenomenon is based on the heterogeneity of sporulating populations, constituted by at least two cell types: (1) sporulating cells, in which the master regulator of sporulation Spo0A is active, and (2) nonsporulating cells, in which Spo0A is inactive. Sporulating cells produce two toxins that act cooperatively to kill the nonsporulating sister cells. The nutrients released by the dead cells into the starved medium are used for growth by the sporulating cells that are not yet fully committed to sporulate, and as a result, sporulation is arrested. This review outlines the molecular mechanisms of the killing and immunity to the toxins, the regulation of their production and other examples of killing of siblings in microorganisms. The biological significance of this behavior is discussed.