“We found evolution will punish you if you’re selfish and mean,” said lead author Christoph Adami, MSU professor of microbiology and molecular genetics. “For a short time and against a specific set of opponents, some selfish organisms may come out ahead. But selfishness isn’t evolutionarily sustainable.”

The paper appears in the current issue of Nature Communications and focuses on game theory, which is used in biology, economics, political science and other disciplines. Much of the last 30 years of research has focused on how cooperation came to be, since it’s found in many forms of life, from single-cell organisms to people.

In 2012, a scientific paper unveiled a newly discovered strategy – called zero-determinant – that gave selfish players a guaranteed way to beat cooperative players.

“The paper caused quite a stir,” said Adami, who co-authored the paper with Arend Hintze, molecular and microbiology research associate. “The main result appeared to be completely new, despite 30 years of intense research in this area.”