Saturday, March 22, 2008

Life

Here is the cover of the current issue of Science. What, pray tell, are these myriad golden spheres? They are Staphylococcus aureus, one of the most successful human pathogens, here revealed in all their glory by the scanning electron microscope.

Each aureate orb is a living organism. Invisibly small, but intent on doing the same thing you and I do -- propagating its genes. How small? A S. aureus bacterium is about a micron in diameter, which means a thousand could line up across this letter o. Think of them! That little column of one thousand, that little line of golden pearls. This is where it all began, the primaeval seed of life on Earth, the microscopic golden egg that laid the macroscopic goose.

And, oh, they love us. Here's a pic I found on the web showing some of the ways they love us (click to enlarge). They love us with a fierce, enduring love. Sometimes they love us to death.

It's not a one way street. We have used microbes for generations to make beer, bread and cheese. We are learning how to use them as medicines to fight other invisible organisms. We are splicing their genes into food plants to make the plants insect or insecticide resistant, salt or drought tolerant.

More is coming, a third major cultural revolution (after the agricultural revolution and the industrial revolution). A massive utilization of microbial life. Plants that fix their own nitrogen, making unnecessary the application of artificial fertilizer. Pollution-free bio-electricity generation. Water purification and sewage disposal systems. Don't be surprised if the long-term solutions to our energy problem and global warming involve harnessing bacteria.

There is nothing fundamentally new about any of this. Visible plants and animals would not exist if bacteria had not already spent billions of years transforming the Earth, making it habitable for the likes of you and me, adding oxygen to the atmosphere, for example, or creating soil. They weren't doing it for us. They were doing it for themselves. And now we will use them en masse for our continued success.

If they don't get us first.