Moselio Schaechter

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December 14, 2009

Retrospective, December 2009

We present here a lightly annotated list that includes most of our posts from the past half year.



Exciting Resolution. Forget what you learned in school about the limits of the resolving power of the optical microscope. We can now go beyond that. Jennifer Gutierrez explains how it’s done (without breaking the laws of physics!)

The Ten Minute Leeuwenhoek Microscope. Patrick Keeling shows you how to have fun in class with all hands busy making functional microscopes.

The Limitations of LB Medium. Hiroshi Nikaido sets us straight on reasons why, if you just made a batch of LB broth by carefully weighing the ingredients, adjusting the pH, and autoclaving it, you should now pour it down the drain.




Marine Archaea and the Nitrogen Cycle. Doug Bartlett reveals that archaeal consortia in the bottom of the sea fix nitrogen and contribute to the nitrogen cycle.

There’s Gold in That Periplasm. Bacteria mine gold. They convert toxic Au(III) complexes to insoluble (and mineable) Au0.

Small Friends of Fungi. Animals eat plants, big animals eat small ones. End of story, right? Not so fast, says Bob Mesibov. Most plant detritus (leaves, twigs, etc) is consumed by fungi and bacteria, what he calls the Dead Plant Society, and not by the Green Feeders Guild.

The Spider's Guide to Predator Deception. Some spiders make conspicuous decoys that look like themselves. Predators beware!




Condominium plant. Some plants in tropical rainforests provide both food and living accommodations for their ant symbionts in exchange for protection from herbivory.

All For One and One For All. Plants that grow at 50°C? Would you believe that to do it they need the help not only from a fungus but also from its viruses. Mark Martin explains.

Good Guys, Bad Guys. Pea aphids (bad guys) feed on our crop plants and are, in turn, preyed upon by parasitoid wasps (good guys). Not to be so readily defeated, some aphids host an anti-wasp defense team: a bacterial endosymbiont that carries a toxin-producing phage.

Myco-kleptomaniacs. Bark beetles grow fungi on the walls of the channels they make in trees. One species doesn't bother to schlep fungal spores to its young. Instead, it swipes the fungi collected by other species.

Playing the Light Organ Two Ways. The light organ of squids that contains bioluminescent bacteria also is photosensitive. This allows for cross-talk between host and symbiont, and suggests possible mechanisms for regulating light emission.

An Iconoclastic Endosymbiont. Living within the Arizona cicada is an endosymbiont that has taken genome reduction very seriously. It currently holds the record for the smallest bacterial genome, a performance that raises more questions about genome evolution than it answers.

Life in a Big Mac. Numerous endosymbionts call the macronucleus of paramecia home. When their host digests its macronuclei following mating, the endosymbionts differentiate into an infectious form and go off in search of a new host.


Genomic Secrets of Phytophthora infestans. How come the Potato Blight Mold has a genome that is 3 to 6 times larger than that of its cousins?

A Mold That Changed The Course of History. The Great Potato Famine in Ireland caused the migration of millions of people to the US, all thanks to a lowly mold.

Natural bact colonies


Microbial Diversity

Five Questions About Oomycetes. They may look like fungi, but fungi they're not. Some even have ways to actively shoot their spores into a passing soon-to-be host.

Five Questions About Microsporidia. Patrick Keeling answers some of our questions, such as: Are they protists, fungi, or what? We learn that their genomes are small, their mitochondria but relicts—two factors that make them highly dependent on their host cell.

Physiology & Genetics

Getting a Handle on Cell Organization. Frank Harold examines two recent reviews on the organization of cells from the point of view of self-organization and experimental cell reconstitution. He brings to this task his keen insight and his way with words.

Location, Location, Location. The localisome (the intracellular location of everything) is being well studied in Caulobacter. Alan Derman takes us through what to believe and what message to take home.

Mycobacteria Make Spores? Peter Setlow examines critically this surprising claim.



Mad Dogs and Microbiologists. The amazing story of Pasteur’s invention and use of the rabies vaccine is recounted by virologist/historian Bill Summers.

Smallest Things Considered. Viroids are infectious agents known to infect some plants where they replicate and sometimes cause symptoms of disease. Quite an accomplishment for a naked, single-stranded RNA molecule containing 246 nucleotides.

The Viral Selenoprotein Theory. Chitra Rajakuberan tells a story of surprises in the HIV genome. Pseudoknots allow making three unexpected proteins, all of which contain selenocysteine. Does this have to do with HIV infection? Do these proteins sequester selenium in patients?

A Matter of Timing: Yellow Fever and the Mosquito Hypothesis. Welkin Johnson recounts the sleuthing that demonstrated the transmission of yellow fever by mosquitos before the infectious agent itself had been identified. We are reminded that this pioneering work cost the lives of researchers and volunteer subjects alike.



It Was the Worst of Times, It Was the Best of Times. Plants and animals died by the droves about 250 million years ago. What happened to their carcasses? Did fungi thrive on them?


The Three Stages of My Experience in Discovering the Mode of Action of Penicillin. Ted Park takes us step by step though his discovery of how penicillin acts on bacteria—a rare glimpse into the workings of a creative mind.

A Call From Arms. Julian Davies argues convincingly that antibiotics did not evolve as microbial weapons, but rather as signaling molecules.


The Genes, The Whole Genes, & Nothing But The Genes. Ciliates are skilled genomic gymnasts. They disassemble, shuffle, and then selectively reassemble their germline genome to create a new workaday macronucleus.

Mushroom man



Mycodiesel. Don't sell your oil stocks yet, but a tropical mold can make (some) diesel fuel from cellulose.

Fungal Stars in the Forest Dark. Some fungi give off an eerie light. We don't know why, but hunting for them, as Dennis Desjardins does, is illuminating.

A Thing of Beauty. Fossil fungi in amber are known to happen, but one specimen containing an Aspergillus is of rare beauty.



Fine Reading

The Good-Enough Clockus of Prochlorococcus. Unlike Synechococcus, the better-studied model of circadian rhythmicity, prochlorococci have a simpler clock, as elucidated by Ilka Axmann and colleagues.

The Biocentric View of the Microbial World. Ramy Aziz reminds us that by fancying ourselves to be the center of the biological world, we miss a lot.

In the Company of Ciliates. Ciliates and their resident bacteria furnish us with a profusion of tales of symbioses. The best studied ones are recounted here—to whet your appetite for more.

Of Terms in Biology

  • Neuston (a new one for you?)
  • Planktonic (as opposed to sessile. Bet you know these.)
  • Sympatric and Allopatric (familiar terms for those trained in classical ecology, and increasingly relevant for microbiologists)



Odds & Ends

Biology By the Numbers. This is where to quickly find the numbers amassed by the counting or measuring of all things biological. But beware! Go here to retrieve one number, and you're apt to be lured into exploring farther.

The Leopard and the Mouse. Just when you thought you had seen everything, here’s a leopard in captivity that doesn't mind a mouse eating its food.

Fiddling with Fungi: And the
Winner Is…
Does fungal decomposition of wood make for better violins? You bet it can, given the right fungi.


Heck of a year! Thanks and congratulations!

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