5 Weird & Wonderful Facts About Microbes

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World Antimicrobial Awareness Week (WAAW) takes place every year from 18th-24th November. In light of this occasion, here are some of the latest scientific studies focussing on the wide-ranging capacities of microbes themselves. Life at the microscopic level moves beyond pathogenic germs and science is gaining a burgeoning understanding of the many weird and wonderful capacities of these (not-so-)simple lifeforms.

Hungry E. coli Team Up to Solve Labyrinthine In Quest For Food

In hopes to develop interventions that hinder bacterial infections, scientists at Princeton University are trying to better understand how colonies of E. coli navigate their surroundings. The world is full of complex landscapes and in order to survive microbes have learned to map out these complicated environments. Scientists recreated maze-like structures to study the exact strategies that bacteria harnessed to navigate. Turns out, collaboration and teamwork topped the list. By teaming up, the researchers calculated that these microbes escaped these complicated puzzles five-times quicker than if they were roaming around at random. The microorganisms even grouped together to overcome obstacles, such as dead ends.

Microbial Life Over 100 million Years Old  Exists Below The Pacific Seafloor

The resilience of microorganisms to even the most tumultuous of earthly environments is well studied. However, the nutrient-deprived sediments that make up the depths below the seafloor seemed an unlikely place to find life. Researchers from the JAMSTEC initiative, based out of Japan, ventured out to the Pacific ocean to see if any microbes were sustaining themselves where food and oxygen were severely limited. Drilling thousands of feet below the seafloor, scientists extracted samples of sediments and took them back to the lab to be analysed. Their findings unearthed dormant microbes old enough to have existed as dinosaurs roamed the Earth’s plains.

The researchers were able to revive these life forms by coaxing them with food and the right laboratory conditions. Interestingly, as these microbes reproduced, multiplying and dividing once more, scientists found that their evolutionary speed was much slower than the tempo of microbial life above ground. It seems that oxygen and food deprivation, in tandem with immense oceanic pressure, is no hindrance to the resilience of microbial life, albeit at a slower pace. 

Colonies of Bacteria Survive 3 Years of Hostile Exposure in Space

Shifting focus from below the watery depths of the Earth’s oceans to now the cosmic domain of outer space, scientists wanted to study how microbes held up under the extremities of galactic exposure. In this astrobiology experiment, three different species of Deinococcus travelled to the International Space Station. Scientists then attached these colonies to the outside of the craft, retrieving the samples after three years and observing how these lifeforms fared under the harsh conditions of space.

The researchers found that even under solar UV radiation, extreme vacuum and temperature fluctuations these microbes had survived the intense challenges of space.  Despite the outermost layers of the bacteria having died, the microbes’ DNA, the genetic building blocks of life, remained intact underneath all the decayed layers. These results could progress a controversial theory known as panspermia, where it is hypothesized that earthly life began after a group of microbes hitched a ride on a celestial body that went on to collide with the planet we now call home. Although panspermia is not, and may never be, a widely accepted theory, microbes still might be just about the toughest of life forms on Earth – and beyond. 

Microplastics Be Gone! Bacteria And Algae Are Eating Up Plastic Waste

A new discovery of the transformative powers of microbial life could help kick start a recycling revolution. There has been growing awareness, and alarm, over microplastics polluting the planet. This concern is due to the complete biodegradation, depolymerization and mineralization of plastic estimating to take centuries to occur. Microbial life originating from dystrophic lakes are known for their capacities to decompose polymers, chains of molecules that make up plastics. A group of researchers based out of Finland wanted to see if the same bacteria and algae were decomposing polyethylene – one of the world’s most used plastics.

Harnessing carbon isotope labelling, the researchers could trace microplastics through the planktonic food chain in these unique environments. The bacteria and algae transformed the plastic’s polymers into fatty chain acids, such as omega-3 and omega-6. There is no doubt that the production of new plastic waste must be minimized. But for the copious amounts of debris that already exists on the planet, these microbes offer an exciting point of interjection to innovate our current recycling practices. 

Oceanic Phytoplankton Releases More Than Half of the World’s Oxygen

Microbial life may not only offer solutions to our growing plastic problem, but may also help regulate gas exchange in the earth’s atmosphere, playing a pivotal role in curbing climate change. Returning once again to the world’s oceans, an international team of researchers are trying to better understand the extent to which photosynthesizing microbes, like phytoplankton, algae, bacteria and other protocellular creatures, absorb and release carbon dioxide and oxygen respectively.

A single drop of seawater is teeming with millions of microbes, some of which are thought to capture an estimated 25% of the carbon dioxide released from anthropogenic fossil fuel consumption. On the other hand, these microbial agents are also thought to produce over half of the world’s oxygen. However, ecologists are monitoring this gas exchange, as concerns over ocean acidification—calculated as 30% worse than preindustrial times—perniciously implicate the sustenance of aquatic microbial life. Changing environmental conditions means it is getting harder for these microbes to carry out these processes.

To Wrap It Up

Life beyond what is visible to the naked eye is perpetually existing all around us. Microorganisms underpin much of the vital, ecological functioning of the Earth. These lifeforms can — and do! — exist in the most extreme of environments. In light of World Antimicrobial Awareness Week, the resilience of microbes necessitates our respect, as their awesome evolutionary capacities are adapting to the medicines we have developed to treat common infections.