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Bacteria 'R' Us
October 19, 2010 7:16 PM   Subscribe

Bacteria can communicate with each other, take concerted action, influence human physiology, alter human thinking, and work together to change their environment. The bacteria in your gut are talking to each other, and to you, and you are talking back to them. The mind boggles.

Bacteria can distinguish “self” from “other,” and between their relatives and strangers; they can sense how big a space they’re in; they can move as a unit; they can produce a wide variety of signaling compounds, including at least one human neurotransmitter. Some bacteria practice predation in packs. Maybe we should start thinking about making peace with bacteria, instead of wildly taking antibiotics.
posted by exphysicist345 (55 comments total) 70 users marked this as a favorite

 
See also: Bradbury, Ray, Fever Dream.
posted by Gator at 7:21 PM on October 19, 2010 [2 favorites]


Really, really interesting stuff. Great post.
posted by empatterson at 7:23 PM on October 19, 2010


See also Benford, Gregory, Blood Music.
posted by signal at 7:23 PM on October 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


Woops, Bear, Greg.
posted by signal at 7:24 PM on October 19, 2010


See also this TED talk by Bonnie Bassler
posted by Blasdelb at 7:24 PM on October 19, 2010 [2 favorites]


See also: My Bowels, Probiotic Acidophilus.
posted by malocchio at 7:25 PM on October 19, 2010


This is the part where someone welcomes our new prokaryote overlords.
posted by louche mustachio at 7:25 PM on October 19, 2010 [6 favorites]


See also Lem, Stanislaw, Imaginary Magnitude (I think).
posted by a small part of the world at 7:28 PM on October 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


A teaspoon of productive soil generally contains between 100 million and 1 billion bacteria. The mind explodes.
posted by sswiller at 7:28 PM on October 19, 2010


(Also: I, for one, welcome our new Bacterial Overlords.)
posted by empatterson at 7:30 PM on October 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


This is a really awesome new paper in PNAS on how we get started with our microbiome
posted by Blasdelb at 7:31 PM on October 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


Oops, my bad. Looks like louche mustachio beat me to it and said it better to boot. Carry on.
posted by empatterson at 7:35 PM on October 19, 2010


And, apparently, we humans are something like 90% bacta. Me and my fat disagree.
posted by Old'n'Busted at 7:37 PM on October 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


Maybe we should start thinking about making peace with bacteria, instead of wildly taking antibiotics.

No. Let's exile all the germs.

To Germany.
posted by jonmc at 7:39 PM on October 19, 2010 [4 favorites]


I reminded of an interview with a scientist who said even if the could clone dinosaurs, they wouldn't survive long because the bacteria would be so different now from tens of millions of years ago.
posted by bobo123 at 7:43 PM on October 19, 2010 [4 favorites]


Germany will only take nein.
posted by ...possums at 7:44 PM on October 19, 2010 [3 favorites]


this is war
posted by Ironmouth at 7:50 PM on October 19, 2010


I'm sure this has been pondered in sci-fi many times, but I wonder if there's an argument to be made that the intelligent alien life we've been waiting for all this time are actually bacteria, they're here and they've been here for some time and they're living inside us, controlling us, directly shaping their evolution and our evolution in profound ways. And we wouldn't even know they've arrived or that they're seamlessly joining themselves with the rest of the planet ("In principle, every bacterium can exchange genes with every other bacterium on the planet. A side effect of this reality: The notion of separate bacterial species is somewhat shaky...") And the way the world "is" and is going to be won't be shaped by our "free will" but by these intelligent microscopic aliens living inside of and outside of us. Maybe this sounds totally silly but it makes me uncomfortable to think about.
posted by naju at 7:52 PM on October 19, 2010 [10 favorites]


And, apparently, we humans are something like 90% bacta. Me and my fat disagree.

I realize this runs completely counter to the spirit of your comment, but here's a quick clarification to make sense of the stats:

Even if 90% of the cells within your body are bacteria, you aren't 90% bacteria by volume or mass. Bacterial cells are tiny compared to eukaryotic cells. This chart shows that bacteria are (estimating in the most conservative way possible) 5 times smaller than eukaryote cells in terms of diameter (length). Cubing that factor to see the difference in volume, we see that bacteria are 125 times smaller in terms of volume.

If 90% of the cells within your body were bacteria, then if you have x somatic cells, you've got 9x bacterial cells. But those bacterial cells comprise just 9/125 (less than 10%) of your mass or volume. And remember, this is taking the most conservative estimate of their size difference (taking the largest bacteria against the smallest eukaryote), so bacteria probably comprise even less of your body than 10% by mass.
posted by Jpfed at 7:55 PM on October 19, 2010 [11 favorites]


One of the stories in Imaginary Magnitude (I thought) was about bacteria bred to organize themselves into lines of morse code, and selected for the more intelligible the output was. This actually turns the story on it's head, because the the things I took away of the piece in Imaginary Magnitude was that Lem was making a point about the emergent property of language from something that was thought to be completely incapable of communication.

Also I think we're 90% by number not 90% by weight.
posted by Grimgrin at 7:55 PM on October 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


"A milestone in microbiology was passed today (29 June) when Mycobacterium tuberculosis ssp.cyberneticum was voted full membership of the United Nations (UN)."
posted by Rhaomi at 7:59 PM on October 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


It's the bacteria's world. I'm just glad they let me live in it.
posted by kuujjuarapik at 8:07 PM on October 19, 2010


naju: (bacteria as intelligent aliens controlling us) The article says the bacteria that existed before we came on the scene may have invented and perfected the basic mechanisms (think DNA, for example) that make our lives possible. My DNA thanks you, ancient bacteria, you little engineers and code monkeys!
posted by exphysicist345 at 8:11 PM on October 19, 2010 [2 favorites]


This is why I leave food out for bacteria so they don't eat me instead.
posted by Allan Gordon at 8:15 PM on October 19, 2010 [3 favorites]


From the Garden of Microbial Delights: “Fully 10 percent of our own dry body weight consists of bacteria, some of which, although they are not a congenital part of our bodies, we can’t live without.”
posted by esome at 8:19 PM on October 19, 2010


>: "See also Bear, Greg, Blood Music."

Revisited in his Vitals, which is sort of a what-if alternate take on Blood Music with the quantum mysticism swapped out in favor of nauseated gut-cramped paranoia about what's actually going on in said gut.
posted by Drastic at 8:20 PM on October 19, 2010


The bacteria have gotten jobs... at the Gym.
posted by oneswellfoop at 8:21 PM on October 19, 2010


Excellent read, not exactly new news more exciting information that I'd seen previously. Kind of makes this J. Scalzi story I'd seen linked recently on the blue a lot more... something. Prescient?

My biggest question is, in light of bacteria's ability to feast upon the planet itself, digesting elements we extract no energy from ourselves (though now I have to think of what is becoming of the minerals I ingest, the left-overs I might be getting), what exactly is to stop anaerobic bacteria from jumping planetary ship and taking all these sweet genes they've been computing these millions of years to at least the rest of our solar system? Perhaps I am displaying my ignorance here, as I know that at least radiation outside our atmosphere would sterilize the outside of any space ship and there must be other hazards to their survival I am ignorant of, but NASA does not sterilize everything they send into space, no?, so could it be possible that the exploratory craft we have sent into space have already bacterially colonized other planet/oids? I just have the vision of innumerable masses of bacteria aboard the Voyager probe, perhaps even seated on the gold record of human achievement, maybe snacking on it a little, giddy with excitement, chattering amongst themselves in between orgies of new space gene development.
posted by kaspen at 8:33 PM on October 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


Otherwise I say we build them an ark. If they gave us DNA, let's give them space spores, then at least some record of this planet's informational accomplishments can survive its likely demise.
posted by kaspen at 8:35 PM on October 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


I miss Stanislaw Lem.

Nice post.
posted by Joe Beese at 8:39 PM on October 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


If you were going to colonize the galaxy what better way than to develop a kind of program within the DNA of bacteria. The Bacteria could be coated and dehydrated to survive the vaccuum of space. You launch them almost at random and then wait for them to hit a habbital planet. They then adapt, evolve according to program and out pops intelligent life your alien cousins who then figure out radio and other advanced cominications forms until they contact you joining up in some galactic wide Internet.
posted by humanfont at 8:47 PM on October 19, 2010 [7 favorites]


Every once in a while you read something that makes you stop and look at the world a little differently. The paragraph on the Human Genome Project did that for me, especially the end:

...humans should start thinking of themselves as ecosystems, rather than discrete individuals.
posted by oozy rat in a sanitary zoo at 9:25 PM on October 19, 2010 [2 favorites]


I'm sure this has been pondered in sci-fi many times, but I wonder if there's an argument to be made that the intelligent alien life we've been waiting for all this time are actually bacteria, they're here and they've been here for some time and they're living inside us, controlling us, directly shaping their evolution and our evolution in profound ways. And we wouldn't even know they've arrived or that they're seamlessly joining themselves with the rest of the planet ("In principle, every bacterium can exchange genes with every other bacterium on the planet. A side effect of this reality: The notion of separate bacterial species is somewhat shaky...") And the way the world "is" and is going to be won't be shaped by our "free will" but by these intelligent microscopic aliens living inside of and outside of us. Maybe this sounds totally silly but it makes me uncomfortable to think about.

If you have to preface something with "I'm not smoking weed right now, but..." then it might not be worth saying, still:

I'm not smoking weed right now, but, I just had a vision of a silicon based life-form on some planet that resembles our archetypal robot. It's in a laboratory and is working with a computer and a microscope at a workbench. He's making small, pre-programmed bacterial packages (most computers in the robot's world run off of carbon based bacteria) to send on a probe into space. The probes will try to find habitable planets and then unload their bacterial programming into suitable environments.

Millions of years later the ultimate fruit of the robot scientist's labor sits at a work-bench in Tokyo, working on what will be the first self-aware robot, a mirror image of the robot scientist.
posted by codacorolla at 9:40 PM on October 19, 2010 [9 favorites]


You launch them almost at random and then wait for them to hit a habbital planet.

I think you're underestimating how big and empty space is. Fire a bullet or a spore in a random direction, and the chances of it hitting a habitable planet are almost nil. Fire a million of them, and your chances are slightly higher, but still essentially nil.
posted by chrisamiller at 9:42 PM on October 19, 2010 [2 favorites]


Bacteria can distinguish “self” from “other,”

Isn't that the criteria for a Charisma stat?
posted by Pope Guilty at 9:48 PM on October 19, 2010 [2 favorites]


Heribert Watzke: The brain in your gut
posted by kliuless at 9:54 PM on October 19, 2010


Even the left and right hands have their own distinct biota

i wonder if they're different for left and right handers? ...for some reason!

it's nice seeing the human microbiome project making some headway :P
posted by kliuless at 10:11 PM on October 19, 2010


what exactly is to stop anaerobic bacteria from jumping planetary ship and taking all these sweet genes they've been computing these millions of years to at least the rest of our solar system?

An almost-complete lack of hydrogen on Venus, for example.

However, I would bet there are weird and almost undetectable forms of life within the solar system. Some of the chemistries of the planets and moons are far enough outside of our normal ranges of temperature and pressure that we don't have a good idea what types of stable compounds exist. Life really only needs three criteria to evolve: 1) an energy gradient for metabolism, 2) a way of encoding heritable information, and 3) a way for mutations to occur during replication. It's entirely possible that some weird magma flux is actually a replicating entity, but it would take a long time to recognize it as such.
posted by benzenedream at 10:39 PM on October 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


This is a fascinating post. I always suspected as much. Very like them really!
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 11:57 PM on October 19, 2010


Kaspen, it's already happened:
In November, 1969, the Surveyor 3 spacecraft's microorganisms were recovered from inside its camera that was brought back to Earth under sterile conditions by the Apollo 12 crew.

The 50-100 organisms survived launch, space vacuum, 3 years of radiation exposure, deep-freeze at an average temperature of only 20 degrees above absolute zero, and no nutrient, water or energy source.

posted by jjwiseman at 1:13 AM on October 20, 2010 [3 favorites]


I liked this part:

"These facts by themselves may trigger existential shock: People are partly made of pond scum. But beyond that psychic trauma, a new and astonishing vista unfolds."

Sums up so many things so nicely.
posted by iamkimiam at 2:02 AM on October 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


Strictly by the numbers, the vast majority — estimated by many scientists at 90 percent — of the cells in what you think of as your body are actually bacteria, not human cells.
This is an extreemly annoying statistic I see around. It makes it sound as though human bodies are mostly made up of bacteria. The reality is that Human cells are much, much larger then bacteria. A human cell is about 10 µm (according to wikipedia) And according to wikipedia bacteria cells are about 1/10th the size of eukaryotic cells.

But since volume goes up by the cube of length, that means humans cells would be about 1,000 times bigger as bacteria. If there were ten times as many bacterial cells as human cells in a human body, that would only amount to 1% by volume, not 90%.

So that statistic is very misleading, in my view.
posted by delmoi at 3:41 AM on October 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


The bacteria in your gut are talking to each other, and to you ...

See? I told you those voices I heard weren't just in my head.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 5:11 AM on October 20, 2010


And yet they cannot drink in pubs.
posted by Sutekh at 5:23 AM on October 20, 2010


And, apparently, we humans are something like 90% bacta.

My midichlorian(bacteria) count is over 9000!!!
posted by AElfwine Evenstar at 5:25 AM on October 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


Maybe we're all just automatons being directed by our bacteria... RIGHT NOW!
posted by Theta States at 5:35 AM on October 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


I was just having a conversation with my bacteria the other day. I asked them to be merciful and pleaded with them to consider the possibility that, with their help, we humans could overcome our limitations and adapt to coexist in peace with their kind and our own (because otherwise I've started getting the sense they've decided we monkeys have outlived our usefulness). Maybe this means they could actually hear me. (Or more likely, that I've been working too hard lately.)
posted by saulgoodman at 6:19 AM on October 20, 2010


I know some intestinal bacteria and as far as i can understand it their main complaint is that the RENT IS TOO DAMN HIGH.
posted by storybored at 7:33 AM on October 20, 2010 [5 favorites]


Wait wait wait — there must be some catch here! Surely each bacterium is accomplishing all this by participating in unregulated markets for its own self-interest! After all, without price signals, how would anything ever get done? Oh woe to my beloved idols Von Hayek and Von Mises!
posted by scrod at 8:16 AM on October 20, 2010


Fecal transplants give new meaning to the term 'eat shit' now, dunnit?
posted by daHIFI at 8:53 AM on October 20, 2010


...and the Elders of Tralfamadore nod knowingly.
posted by COBRA! at 9:42 AM on October 20, 2010


Kaspen, it's already happened:

Holy shit!!! Maybe it's the bacteria in my gut feeding me serotonin as a reward for thinking so, but the vision of every inch of this solar system which we'd thought to be desolate and requiring terraforming or biodomes being not only ripe for bacterial colonization, but potentially already under way (how many non-sterile craft have we landed extra-planetarily by now?) is tremendously exciting.
posted by kaspen at 9:43 AM on October 20, 2010


Last night, I dreamed of giant bacterial arcs being fired off of the planet toward other planets, as part of a billion year plan for human survival.
posted by klangklangston at 10:03 AM on October 20, 2010


As someone currently being tested for the presence of Helicobacter pylori, I can assure you that the "conversation" between me and bacteria is more like an dysfunctional couple who react to the other party's every move by yelling "fuck you" at the top of their voices.

Bring on the antiboitics... I've got some genocide planned.
posted by sodium lights the horizon at 10:18 AM on October 20, 2010


We continue to scratch at the surface of biology, beginning just now to see through the glass darkly.
posted by Mental Wimp at 2:45 PM on October 20, 2010


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