Only very rarely have I had the experience of serendipitously running into an article that is entertaining, hugely informative, and shocking all at once. It happened last week and I feel utterly compelled to provide brief comments interspersed among quotes from sections that I found particularly striking and thought provoking. Ken Timmis, already well-known to many STC readers for his extensive efforts at spreading microbial literacy (among many other accomplishments), teamed up with John Hallsworth to produce this brilliant piece of writing. The paper is part of an excellent open-access collection published in Microbial Biotechnology to celebrate its fifteenth birthday.
The article is set in an apocalyptic scenario of Earth's not-too-distant future if humans fail to confront and at least slow down the global warming crisis and its effects on the biosphere. Specifically, it's the conversation of a baby Pseudomonas and its grandmother – Luca and Granny – living in a biofilm microcolony on a rock fissure, 600 kilometers below the surface in the Iberian Pyrite Belt. For those of us familiar with E. coli's 20-minute doubling times, baby Luca's and Granny's ages (300 and 783,451 years, respectively) will be an eye-opener of how slow slow microbial growth can be. Welcome to the reality of subsurface microbiology!
In a little over seven pages of conversational text the authors pack both Earth's natural history and humankind's cultural evolution. Here, for example, is their straight-forward depiction of the great oxygenation event:
"Granny: Well, the most amazing development was the evolution of the ability to capture sunshine and use it as energy for growth. This development – called photosynthesis – was hugely transformative, especially because it also involved production of oxygen, which changed the existing atmospheric gas environment profoundly. In fact, at first oxygen was poisonous for them, but the Cyanos are the smartest microbes, and they not only adapted pretty sharply to protect themselves but actually developed a new way of doing things that used the oxygen they produced. And then what they discovered was that, because, unlike hydrogen down here, sunlight is mostly not limiting, by using sunlight for energy and oxygen for metabolic activities, they could grow and evolve much faster than we can – very much faster."
And here is eukaryogenesis:
"Granny: Another major result of all this evolution was that we created so-called higher organisms, which we named hogs. Unlike us, hogs have bigger cells that contain some of us, called mitochondria, that have become specialized to generate all the chemical energy the cell needs using, guess what, oxygen. And the step-up in energy supply enabled Hog cells to become more complex than us and able to do things that we can only do as a group. Hogs also evolved into multicellular organisms, and some became very big."
Soon afterwards, these hogs split into two groups, the plant hogs (phogs) and the fauna hogs (fhogs). One evolutionary trajectory of the fhogs led "to emergence of the most aggressive and destructive of all fhogs: the human," Granny said. To which Luca answers: "Oh. I have heard of humans. They destroyed the surface of the planet! How could they do such an awful thing?" Thus enters human cultural evolution. Here, for example, is the ascent of money:
"Granny: ... [humans] invented something called money and, from that moment on, money substituted the exchange of real resources.
Luca: I have heard about that. Isn't money the root of all evil?
Granny: Oh, my treasure. You are clever and remember everything Granny tells you! Yes! The money proxy developed a life of its own and people wanted it more than natural resources, so it became a magic resource in its own right. People would store it as though it would maintain its value over time. And the more people wanted it, the more it increased in value. It was the ultimate Ponzi scheme."
Embedded in the text there is even this philosophical musing on our own short-sighted and anthropocentric perception of time:
"Granny: So, life goes on down here pretty much the way it always did: slowly. Because whereas time was perceived by humans as always being in short supply – the limiting factor for things humans regarded as being essential to do, often without any particularly compelling reason other than their mortality – so they were always in a hurry, setting deadlines, imposing sanctions and punishments for being late and so forth, for us, time is a resource available in unlimited supply."
I hope that with this rather extensive use of their text I've given you enough reason to put aside any hurries and spend some time reading the whole text, I assure you it will be worth your while. I now want to leave you with a phrase from the abstract that struck a chord with me, and then a tiny "grain of sand" suggestion, because I strongly believe that there is still hope to avoid this bleak future and microbiologists can play an active part:
"...given the dire predictions for the fate of the surface biosphere as a result of current trajectories of global warming, the future of microbial biotechnology research must have a single purpose, namely to help secure the future of life on Earth. Everything else will, by comparison, be irrelevant."
That is a huge directive. Microbial biotechnology research must have a single purpose, to help secure the future of life on Earth. How to even begin to achieve this gargantuan task? Here is my suggestion, I ask that all educators and students of microbiology incorporate this text at the beginning of every introductory microbiology course across the planet. And to use it as a guide in the development of the content of the courses themselves. This will instill this "prime directive" in the minds of all future microbiologists. Inside me, I sincerely hope this idea gains traction. And I hope it's not too late.