Posts about microbes

Researchers Explain How Rotifers Thrive Despite Forgoing Sex

Bdelloid rotifers haven’t had sex for at least thirty million years. Most asexual animals are doomed to extinction. The excellent show, Science Friday, looks at the extraordinary adaptations that allow rotifers to thrive sex-free.

For millions of years, the rotifers have reproduced asexually, flying in the face of an idea known as the Red Queen Hypothesis, which states that without the advantage of sexual reproduction, more-rapidly evolving parasites and predators will eventually doom the asexual species. Now, the researchers studying the tiny organism say that its ability to dry up and blow away to greener pastures may have given the rotifers a hidden tactical edge in this evolutionary war.

The webcast provides a nice overview of the research. Every week Science Friday provides many such interesting reviews of recent scientific research.

What Are Rotifers?

Rotifers are small, mostly freshwater animals, and are amongst the smallest members of the Metazoa — that group of multicellular animals which includes humans, and whose bodies are organized into systems of organs.
Most rotifers are about 0.5mm in length or less, and their bodies have a total of around a thousand cells. This means that their organ systems are a greatly simplified distillation of the organ systems found in the bodies of the higher animals.

A typical rotifer might have a brain of perhaps fifteen cells with associated nerves and ganglia, a stomach of much the same number, an excretory system of only a dozen or so cells, and a similarly fundamental reproductive system. They have no circulatory system. It is an anomaly that despite their complexity, many rotifers are much smaller than common single-celled organisms whose world they share.

they are able to survive long periods — even perhaps hundreds of years — in a dried or frozen state, and will resume normal behaviour when rehydrated or thawed.
Secondly, they exhibit what biologists call cell constancy — they grow in size not by cell division, but by increase in the size of the cells which they already have.

Related: Bdelloid Rotifers Abandoned Sex 100 Million Years AgoFungus-gardening Ant Species Has Given Up Sex CompletelyAmazon Molly Fish are All Female50 Species of Diatoms

Microbes Flourish In Healthy People

Bugs Inside: What Happens When the Microbes That Keep Us Healthy Disappear? by Katherine Harmon

The human body has some 10 trillion human cells—but 10 times that number of microbial cells. So what happens when such an important part of our bodies goes missing?

“Someone who didn’t have their microbes, they’d be naked,” says Martin Blaser, a professor of microbiology and chair of the Department of Medicine at New York University Langone Medical Center in New York City.

Even though it is such an apparently integral and ancient aspect of human health, scientists are still grasping for better ways to study human microbiota—before it changes beyond historical recognition. Borrowing models from outside of medicine has helped many in the field gain a better understanding of this living world within us. “The important concept is about extinctions,” Blaser says. “It’s ecology.”

The first step in understanding these systems is simply taking stock of what archaea, bacteria, fungi, protozoa and viruses are present in healthy individuals. This massive micro undertaking has been ongoing since 2007 through the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) Human Microbiome Project. So far it has turned up some surprisingly rich data, including genetic sequencing for some 205 of the different genera that live on healthy human skin.

Despite the flood of new data, Foxman laughs when asked if there is any hope for a final report from the Human Microbiome Project any time soon. “This is the very, very beginning,” she says, comparing this project with the NIH’s Human Genome Project, which jump-started a barrage of new genetic research. “There are basic, basic questions that we don’t know the answers to,” she says, such as how different microbiota are between random individuals or family members; how much microbiota change over time; or how related the microbiota are to each other on or inside a person’s body.

Related: Microcosm by Carl ZimmerTracking the Ecosystem Within UsAlligator Blood Provides Strong Resistance to Bacteria and VirusesBeneficial Bacteria

Microcosm by Carl Zimmer

cover of Microcosm by Carl Zimmer

Microcosm: E. Coli and the New Science of Life by Carl Zimmer is an excellent book. It is full of fascinating information and as usual Carl Zimmer’s writing is engaging and makes complex topics clear.

E-coli keep the level of oxygen low in the gut making the resident microbes comfortable. At any time a person will have as many as 30 strains of E. coli in their gut and it is very rare for someone ever to be free of E. coli. [page 53]

In 1943, Luria and Delbruck published the results that won them the 1969 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in which they showed that bacteria and viruses pass down their traits using genes (though it took quite some time for the scientific community at large to accept this). [page 70]

during a crisis E coli’s mutation rates could soar a hundred – or even a thousandfold… Normally, natural selection favors low mutation rates, since most mutations are harmful. But in times of stress extra mutations may raise the odds that organisms will hit on a way out of their crisis… [alternatively, perhaps] In times of stress, E coli. may not be able to afford the luxury of accurate DNA repair. Instead, it turns to the cheaper lo-fi polymerases. While they may do a sloppier job, E coli. comes out ahead [page 106]
Hybridization is not the only way foreign DNA got into our cells. Some 3 billion years ago our single-celled ancestors engulfed oxygen-breathing bacteria, which became the mitochondria on which we depend. And, like E. coli, our genomes have taken in virus upon virus. Scientists have identified more than 98,000 viruses in the human genome, along with our mutant vestiges of 150,00 others… If we were to strip out all our transgenic DNA, we would become extinct.

I highly recommend Microcosm, just as I highly recommend Parasite Rex, by Carl Zimmer.

Related: Bacteriophages: The Most Common Life-Like Form on EarthForeign Cells Outnumber Human Cells in Our BodiesAmazing Designs of LifeAmazing Science: RetrovirusesOne Species’ Genome Discovered Inside Another’s

Dennis Bray Podcast on Microbes As Computers

Carl Zimmer interviews Dennis Bray in an interesting podcast:

Dennis Bray is an active professor emeritus in both the Department of Physiology and Department of Neuroscience at the University of Cambridge. He studies the behavior of microbes–how they “decide” where to swim, when to divide, and how best to manage the millions of chemical reactions taking place inside their membranes. For Bray, microbes are tiny, living computers, with genes and proteins serving the roles of microprocessors.

Related: E. Coli IndividualityWetware: A Computer in Every Living Cell by Dennis Bray – Programing BacteriaMicro-robots to ‘swim’ Through Veins

Iron-breathing Species Isolated in Antarctic for Millions of Years

Graphic showing environment of Antarctic subglacial microbesGraphic of Blood Falls showing microbial community environment in the Antarctic by Zina Deretsky at NSF)

A reservoir of briny liquid buried deep beneath an Antarctic glacier supports hardy microbes that have lived in isolation for millions of years, researchers report this week. The discovery of life in a place where cold, darkness, and lack of oxygen would previously have led scientists to believe nothing could survive comes from a team led by researchers at Harvard University and Dartmouth College.

Despite their profound isolation, the microbes are remarkably similar to species found in modern marine environments, suggesting that the organisms now under the glacier are the remnants of a larger population that once occupied an open fjord or sea.

“It’s a bit like finding a forest that nobody has seen for 1.5 million years,” says Ann Pearson, Thomas D. Cabot Associate Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences in Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences. “Intriguingly, the species living there are similar to contemporary organisms, and yet quite different — a result, no doubt, of having lived in such an inhospitable environment for so long.”

“This briny pond is a unique sort of time capsule from a period in Earth’s history,” says lead author Jill Mikucki, now a research associate in the Department of Earth Sciences at Dartmouth and visiting fellow at Dartmouth’s Dickey Center for International Understanding and its Institute of Arctic Studies. “I don’t know of any other environment quite like this on Earth.”

Chemical analysis of effluent from the inaccessible subglacial pool suggests that its inhabitants have eked out a living by breathing iron leached from bedrock with the help of a sulfur catalyst. Lacking any light to support photosynthesis, the microbes have presumably survived by feeding on the organic matter trapped with them when the massive Taylor Glacier sealed off their habitat an estimated 1.5 to 2 million years ago.
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Tardigrades (commonly known as water bears) have eight legs and are their own phylum on the tree of life. Some can survive temperatures close to absolute zero, temperatures as high as 151 °C (303 °F), 1,000 times more radiation than any other animal, nearly a decade without water, and even the vacuum of space.

Related: Tardigrades, UNC Chapel HillTardigrades In Space (TARDIS)What is an Extremophile?Evolution, Methane, Jobs, Food and More

Evolution, Methane, Jobs, Food and More

photo of sunset on Mars
Photo from May 2005 by NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Spirit as the Sun sank below the rim of Gusev crater on Mars.

Science Friday is a great National Public Radio show. The week was a great show covering Antimicrobial Copper, Top Jobs for Math and Science, Human-Driven Evolution, Methane On Mars, Fish with Mercury and more. This show, in particular did a great job of showing the scientific inquiry process in action.

“Fishing regulations often prescribe the taking of larger fish, and the same often applies to hunting regulations,” said Chris Darimont, one of the authors of the study. “Hunters are instructed not to take smaller animals or those with smaller horns. This is counter to patterns of natural predation, and now we’re seeing the consequences of this management.” Darimont and colleagues found that human predation accelerated the rate of observable trait changes in a species by 300 percent above the pace observed within purely natural systems, and 50 percent above that of systems subject to other human influences, such as pollution

Very interesting stuff, listen for more details. A part of what happens is those individuals that chose to focus on reproducing early (instead of investing in growing larger, to reproduce later) are those that are favored (they gain advantage) by the conditions of human activity. I am amazed how quickly the scientists says the changes in populations are taking place.

And Methane On Mars is another potentially amazing discovery. While it is far from providing proof of live on Mars it is possibly evidence of life on Mars. Which would then be looked back on as one of the most important scientific discoveries ever. And in any even the podcast is a great overview of scientists in action.

This week astronomers reported finding an unexpected gas — methane — in the Martian atmosphere. On Earth, a major source of methane is biological activity. However, planetary scientists aren’t ready to say that life on Mars is to blame for the presence of the gas there, as geochemical processes could also account for the finding. The find is intriguing especially because the researchers say they have detected seasonal variations of methane emissions over specific locations on the planet.

Martian Methane Reveals the Red Planet is not a Dead Planet
The Mars Methane Mystery: Aliens At Last?

Related: Mars Rover Continues ExplorationCopper Doorknobs and Faucets Kill 95% of SuperbugsViruses and What is Lifeposts on evolutionScience and Engineering Link Directory

Save the Microbes, Save the World

The panel starts speaking at about minute 14. The technical presentation of the video could be better (likely will be as we develop good, easy ways to capture speaking events for web delivery) but their is some interesting content.

Related: MicrobesSecret Life of MicrobesSciVee: Science WebcastsPlants, Unikonts, Excavates and SARs

Plants can Signal Microbial Friends for Help

When under attack, plants can signal microbial friends for help

Researchers at the University of Delaware have discovered that when the leaf of a plant is under attack by a pathogen, it can send out an S.O.S. to the roots for help, and the roots will respond by secreting an acid that brings beneficial bacteria to the rescue.

In a series of laboratory experiments, the scientists infected the leaves of the small flowering plant Arabidopsis thaliana with a pathogenic bacterium, Pseudomonas syringae. Within a few days, the leaves of the infected plants began yellowing and showing other symptoms of disease.

However, the infected plants whose roots had been inoculated with the beneficial microbe Bacillus subtilis were perfectly healthy. Farmers often add B. subtilis to the soil to boost plant immunity. It forms a protective biofilm around plant roots and also has antimicrobial properties, according to Bais.

Using molecular biological tools, the scientists detected the transmission of a long-distance signal, a “call for help,” from the leaves to the roots in the plants that had Bacillus in the soil. The roots responded by secreting a carbon-rich chemical–malic acid.

All plants biosynthesize malic acid, Bais explains, but only under specific conditions and for a specific purpose–in this case, the chemical was actively secreted to attract Bacillus. Magnified images of the roots and leaves showed the ratcheted-up defense response provided by the beneficial microorganisms.

“Plants can’t move from where they are, so the only way they can accrue good neighbors is through chemistry,” Bais notes.

Related: Researchers Learn What Sparks Plant GrowthSecret Life of MicrobesSymbiotic relationship between ants and bacteriaBacterium Living with High Level Radiation

Life After the Chernobyl Nuclear Accident

Silent Spring by Lauren Monaghan, Cosmos

Ever since, a 30 km ‘exclusion zone’ has existed around the contaminated site, accessible to those with special clearance only. It’s quite easy, then, to conjure an apocalyptic vision of the area; to imagine an eerily deserted wasteland, utterly devoid of life.

But the truth is quite the opposite. The exclusion zone is teeming with wildlife of all shapes and sizes, flourishing unhindered by human interference and seemingly unfazed by the ever-present radiation. Most remarkable, however, is not the life buzzing around the site, but what’s blooming inside the perilous depths of the reactor.

Sitting at the centre of the exclusion zone, the damaged reactor unit is encased in a steel and cement sarcophagus. It’s a deathly tomb that plays host to about 200 tonnes of melted radioactive fuel, and is swarming with radioactive dust.

But it’s also the abode of some very hardy fungi which researchers believe aren’t just tolerating the severe radiation, but actually harnessing its energy to thrive.

“Our findings suggest that [the fungi] can capture the energy from radiation and transform it into other forms of energy that can be used for growth,” said microbiologist Arturo Casadevall from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine at Yeshiva University in New York, USA.

Taken together, the researchers think their results do indeed hint that fungi can live off ionising radiation, harnessing its energy through melanin to somehow generate a new form of biologically usable growing power.

If they’re right, then this is powerful stuff, said fungal biologist Dee Carter from the University of Sydney. The results will challenge fundamental assumptions we have about the very nature of fungi, she said.

It also raises the possibility that fungi might be using melanin to secretly harvest visible and ultraviolet light for growth, adds Casadevall. If confirmed, this will further complicate our understanding of these sneaky organisms and their role in ecosystems.

Pretty amazing stuff. It really is great all that nature gives us to study and learn about using science.

Related: Radiation Tolerant BacteriaNot Too Toxic for LifeBacterium Living with High Level RadiationWhat is an Extremophile?

Microbes Beneath the Sea Floor

This stuff is cool. Here is the full press release from Penn State, Microbes beneath sea floor genetically distinct

Tiny microbes beneath the sea floor, distinct from life on the Earth’s surface, may account for one-tenth of the Earth’s living biomass, according to an interdisciplinary team of researchers, but many of these minute creatures are living on a geologic timescale.

“Our first study, back in 2006, made some estimates that the cells could double every 100 to 2,000 years,” says Jennifer F. Biddle, PhD. recipient in biochemistry and former postdoctoral fellow in geosciences, Penn State. Biddle is now a postdoctoral associate at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

The researchers looked at sediment samples from a variety of depths taken off the coast of Peru at Ocean Drilling Site 1229. They report their findings in today’s (July 22) online issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“The Peruvian Margin is one of the most active surface waters in the world and lots of organic matter is continuously being deposited there,” says Christopher H. House, associate professor of geoscience. “We are interested in how the microbial world differs in the subsea floor from that in the surface waters.”

The researchers used a metagenomic approach to determine the types of microbes residing in the sediment 3 feet, 53 feet, 105 feet and 164 feet beneath the ocean floor. The use of the metagenomics, where bulk samples of sediment are sequences without separation, allows recognition of unknown organism and determination of the composition of the ecosystem.

“The results show that this subsurface environment is the most unique environment yet studied metagenomic approach known today,” says House. “The world does look very different below the sediment surface.” He notes that a small number of buried genetic fragments exist from the water above, but that a large portion of the microbes found are distinct and adapted to their dark and quiet world.

The researchers, who included Biddle; House; Stephan C. Schuster, associate professor; and Jean E. Brenchley, professor, biochemistry and molecular biology, Penn State; and Sorel Fitz-Gibbon, assistant research molecular biologist at the Center for Astrobiology, UCLA, found that a large percentage of the microbes were Archaea, single-celled organisms that look like Bacteria but are different on the metabolic and genetic levels. The percentage of Archaea increases with depth so that at 164 feet below the sea floor, perhaps 90 percent of the microbes are Archaea. The total number of organisms decreases with depth, but there are lots of cells, perhaps as many as 1,600 million cells in each cubic inch.
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