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How bacteria are like smartphones

January 27, 2015

Here is one final post about our recent paper on rhizobium population genomics (1). For me, it marks an important milestone in my long investigation into the diversity of Rhizobium leguminosarum, which began thirty years ago with the publication of my very first paper on rhizobial diversity (2). Curiously, that paper raised some of the issues that are still being addressed today, as it showed that isolates of symbiovars viciae and trifolii shared a number of distinct chromosomal genotypes. Of course, the tools available at the time allowed only a very blurred picture – it is wonderful to return to the story with the clarity of genome sequencing. If you wonder what I have been doing in the intervening thirty years, you will find a complete list of my publications on Google Scholar.   (I recommend that everyone gets a Google Scholar profile – it is such a useful way to keep track of your publications – and those of others.)

Back in 1985, publishing a paper involved massive sheaves of typescript, with glossy photos and hand-inked drawings for the figures. Months after acceptance, your article would arrive in the library in a paper issue of the journal. In the weeks and months after that, you would send out paper reprints in response to requests on postcards and airmail letters (those from India always smelt of curry). Finally, after a year or two, people would start to cite your paper in their own work.

Now, the pace of publication has accelerated, like al aspects of life, as a result of the internet. Our latest paper was accepted a week before Christmas and the final version was published online just two weeks into the new year.   One great thing about online publication is almost instant gratification, because you can immediately see how much interest a publication is generating. The “Info & Metrics” tab on the article’s web page tells me that, since publication on 14 January, our article’s abstract has been viewed 552 times, the full text 1160 times, and the PDF has been downloaded 192 times. Not bad for less than two weeks. I hope all those readers are going to cite our paper!

The article also scores 19 in Altmetrics. This is not something I was really familiar with, but it is based on interest in social media. The article has been blogged once (not including this blog), tweeted by 15 people, and featured on 1 Facebook page. So, thank you to all the rhizobium fans who have tweeted us to stardom! Apparently, an Altmetric of 19 already puts the article in the top 5% of all articles.

Of course, attention on social media does not measure scientific quality, but this did alert me to a couple of interesting web pages. SciGuru provides short commentaries on interesting recent papers covering all aspects of science. They headlined with “How bacteria are like smartphones”, picking up on an analogy that I used in the press release that I wrote for our university. A Facebook community called Microbiology also featured us on 15 January. One more news item that did not make it into Altmetrics was in an online newspaper called The Speaker.

I don’t usually think of writing a press release when I publish a paper, but in this case I thought the work could be of wider interest, and I was also worried that Open Biology is a relatively new journal, and not yet widely associated with microbiology, so people might miss it. The wider attention came largely through two popular analogies – the idea that bacteria are all indviduals with “personalities”, and that they achieve this by acting like smartphones. Each phone comes out of the factory with standard hardware and operating system (core genome), but gains a unique combination of capabilities through apps (accessory genes) downloaded through the internet (by horizontal gene transfer).

A gimmick, perhaps, but rhizobia do not get enough attention from the rest of the world, so sometimes we rhizobiologists need to wave our arms a bit.


  1. Kumar, N., Lad, G., Giuntini, E., Kaye, M. E., Udomwong, P., Shamsani, N. J., Young, J. P. W. & Bailly, X. (2015). Bacterial genospecies that are not ecologically coherent: population genomics of Rhizobium leguminosarum. Open Biology, 5(1), 140133.
  2. Young, J. P. W. (1985). Rhizobium population genetics: enzyme polymorphism in isolates from peas, clover, beans and lucerne grown at the same site. Journal of General Microbiology, 131, 2399-2408.
  1. Jerushan permalink

    Reblogged this on Joel Jerushan.

  2. Great piece, Peter. I love seeing anything rhizosphere-related on WordPress. Best of luck.

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