Provoking your enemies to kill each other

Bacteria produce diverse toxins to eliminate their competitors; however, some of these toxins provoke retaliation. Gonzalez et al. now show that an Escherichia coli strain, which produces a DNA-damaging toxin, incurs a fitness cost in one-on-one competitions, as DNA damage upregulates toxin production in the competitor. Other toxins that do not affect DNA integrity have no ‘provocative’ effect. Interestingly, the provoking strain can have a fitness benefit if it faces more than one competitor by increasing their aggression against each other. The benefit occurs if the provoking strain is spatially shielded from or resistant to the toxins of the competitors, both scenarios that are likely to be found in the microbiota or biofilms.


Original article

  1. Gonzalez, D. et al. Costs and benefits of provocation in bacterial warfare. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1801028115 (2018)

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

Further reading

  1. Nadell, C. D., Drescher, K. & Foster, K. R. Spatial structure, cooperation and competition in biofilms. Nat. Rev. Microbiol. 14, 589–600 (2016)

    Article  PubMed  CAS  Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information



Corresponding author

Correspondence to Ursula Hofer.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Hofer, U. Provoking your enemies to kill each other. Nat Rev Microbiol 16, 520 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41579-018-0062-8

Download citation


Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing