Archive for the ‘B is for Bacteria’ Category

Ocean Bacteria Act As ‘Superorganism’

Saturday, March 20th, 2010

Photo via flickr by komehachi888

Aarhus University scientists have found that sulphur-eating bacteria that live in muddy sediments beneath the sea floor may be connected by a network of microbial nanowires that could shuttle electrons back and forth, allowing communities of bacteria to act as one super-organism. The interconnected ecosystem of the bacteria are compared to the Na’vi people of Pandora in the movie Avatar, where they plug themselves into a network that links all elements of the biosphere, from phosphorescent plants to pterodactyl-like birds.

“The discovery has been almost magic,” says Lars Peter Nielsen of Aarhus University. “It goes against everything we have learned so far. Micro-organisms can live in electric symbiosis across great distances. Our understanding of what their life is like, what they can and can’t do—these are all things we have to think of in a different way now.”

Nielsen and his team took samples of bacteria-laced sediment from the sea floor close to Aarhus. In the lab, they first removed and then replaced the oxygen in the seawater above the samples. To their surprise, measurements of hydrogen sulphide revealed that bacteria several centimetres from the surface started breaking down the gas long before the reintroduced oxygen had diffused down to them.

Nielsen believes a network of conductive protein wires between the bacteria makes this possible, allowing the oxidation reaction to happen remotely from the oxygen that sustains it. The wires transport electrons from bacteria in deeper, oxygen-poor sediments to bacteria in oxygen-rich mud near the surface. There, they are offloaded onto the oxygen, completing the reaction. Nielsen calls the process “electrical symbiosis.”

via Kurzweil AI and New Scientist

Ideas are energy.

Tuesday, July 7th, 2009

Since our launch, so many people have embraced our philosophy that ideas are energy. Ideas are not selfish. Ideas are not viruses. Ideas survive because they fit in with the rest of life.

So, we wanted to highlight some of the key conversations shared by those extraordinary minds that have shaped this contemporary view.

We will be adding other supportive conversations asap. In the meantime, we look forward to your feedback.

Sputnik Observatory

Jacques Vallee: The Physics of Information

In physics, you learn that energy and information are two sides of the same coin – that information can be transformed into energy and visa-versa. If you observe a physical system, you are taking information out of the system by observing it, but you cannot do that without taking energy out of the system. So there is a balance, there is an equilibrium between energy and information. Yet the only physics we have is the physics of energy. What we teach in universities, in Stanford and Berkeley, is the physics of electromagnetism, fields, energy. And there should be another physics: which would be the physics of information. You can think of the world as a world of energy, particles, atoms, molecules, fields and so on, which is the world that we learn about in school. But you could also think of the world as a universe of information with human consciousness becoming aware of the information from microsecond to microsecond.

Robert Thurman: Decode

The living animal brain is like a television set, it has a receiver. It can decode impulses that are in the air, and not just ones that are transmitted by a course thing like a television transmitter, but that are transmitted by other brains.

Dr. Fritz Albert Popp: Brainwave Resonance

It’s very likely that our brainwaves are resonance interactions of the external world with our brain, or that these resonance interactions came up because our brain was, more or less, evolved by these processes – so we are pictures of the information of our surroundings.

Dr. Mae-Wan Ho: Interference

Our whole body is intercommunicating via electrical currents of different kinds – from long distances to the most local distances inside the cell. And could you imagine why? And we are coherent to a high degree. We are like a radio, for example, a television. They depend on coherent electromagnetic fields and signals in order to work which is why they can be affected.

Rupert Sheldrake: Morphic Resonance
From a conversation with Sputnik Observatory:

Morphic resonance from one’s own past is probably the most important kind of resonance of all. In every organism there’s a resonance from its own past. This helps to maintain the organism’s identity. I think this is the basis indeed of individual memory. When I remember what I did a year ago, I don’t think all those memories are stored in my brain. The conventional  view is they must be stored in the brain because the brain is the mind and there’s nothing except the physical structure. Well, people have tried to find memories in brains but they’ve proved extraordinarily elusive. I think that’s because they’re not there. I think they’re no more stored in the brain than the programs you see on the TV set are stored inside the television. The brain is more like a TV receiver than video recorder. The memory is outside the body. It’s tuned into across time, from the past.

Ervin Laszlo: The Field
From a conversation with Sputnik Observatory:

For the past 250, 300 years, in the Western world, we believe that nothing else exists but what we can see and hear and touch. Or taste, or feel. And this impoverishes our consciousness and our lives, also. So the implications are there, if through science now, these latest theories in sciences, we could recognize that the world has a memory – is much more to it than we think, than we have thought in the West, then we could enrich our lives again. This field registers information, but it also maintains it. Similar, in that sense, to the internet, where you enter information. It doesn’t disappear right away, it stays until you remove it. There is nothing that could remove, from this field, information. A holographic information capacity is mind boggling. We are told that according to some calculations that the amount of information contained in the US library of congress could be stored on a holographic superposed medium, multidimensional medium, about the size of a cube a sugar. And we could, if we had the proper access to that, we could remove any volume, any word, any letter in any volume from that. Because the information is all there and it’s all accessible. It’s like a tremendous internet, in that sense, it’s a good example. So it’s coming a little bit closer to our understanding. People could also ask: where is the internet? Where is the information? How do you touch it? I mean you don’t touch it, you don’t see it, but it’s there. And in this same way this information is present, has been present from the beginning of the universe. And it registered all there is and it conserves all there is, so it’s a memory, it’s a cosmic memory.

John Beaulieu: Tune In
From a conversation with Sputnik Observatory:

I think my favorite metaphor now is if you were to look at a satellite dish and you look at the base of your cranium, they look the same. Where a satellite dish looks like that, it’s round and so on, and it has a little thing that comes out. Your cranium looks the same way, and it has a bone called the sphenoid that comes out. What happens is your cranium is constantly rotating, just like a satellite dish, and you get different frequencies, you tune into different possibilities – that’s the transits of the stars above.

Karl Pribram: Out there is your brain
From a conversation with Sputnik Observatory:

What’s above is below – what you see out there is your brain.

Ideas are not selfish.

Tuesday, June 30th, 2009

Ideas are not viruses. For the launch of Sputnik Observatory, we decided to focus on one theme that illustrates our philosophy: Bacteria. Why? Bacteria have survived since the beginning of time, not by combat, but by networking. Sputnik Observatory believes that ideas survive because they fit in with the rest of life. Ideas are social. Ideas should interconnect and re-connect continuously because by linking ideas together, we learn, and new ideas can emerge

What is the cultural relevance of bacteria?

Tuesday, June 30th, 2009

Bacteria–Culturally Relevant?

Are bacteria culturally relevant? This was not the question put to me by Sputnik. Their question was, “What is the cultural relevance of bacteria?” This assumes that bacteria are culturally relevant. Bacteria? Culturally relevant?  Huh?

Yeah, They Are! Or, More Than Your Average Sideshow

Actually, I think (although I had not considered the question before) the women of Sputnik are exactly right. I believe bacteria are culturally relevant, for a variety of reasons. First, when we examine how we have reacted to them, and how are views toward them have changed (or are changing) bacteria teach us something important about ourselves: how little we know how little we know, and how we overreact to the unknown, fearing it instead of learning about it.

In a sense, humanity’s learning of the existence of, initial negative attitude towards,  and growing acceptance of bacteria provides a model for how we interact in general. Dutch fabric merchant turned microscope maker Antonie van Leeuwenhoek discovered bacteria.  Before his groundbreaking microscope investigations in the 1600s—Leeuwenhoek was a little out of control—he looked not just at pond water but at the saliva of drunks and his own sperm in an attempt to unlock the secrets of this new world—the existence of a microscopic realm was not even suspected. At first microscopic life—and much of it, such at the protists, blood cells,  rotifers, and nematodes Leeuwenhoek observed, are far bigger than bacteria—were considered something of drawing room oddity, a sideshow of Lilliputian lifeforms the meaning of whose existence wasn’t clear. (But then, was ours, really?)

Sick Creatures, More than Germs

But this was more the first cultural encounter with microbes than with bacteria. As these smallest of cells, bacteria, became recognized as ubiquitous in the environment, their special traits—and especially their role as causes of disease—came to the foreground. French chemist Louis Pasteur—whose name survives in the word pasteurization, the industrial process of killing bacteria by heating, for example, milk—showed that the widely believed theory of “spontaneous generation” was wrong. Spontaneous generation was the idea that life could arise spontaneously from the environment—for example decaying meat “turning into” maggots or, still more improbably, old rags morphing into rats. By curving and closing glassware, Pasteur prevented invisible-to-the-naked-eye floating bacterial and fungal spores from entering foods, preventing them from spoiling. This simple experiment showed that “spontaneous generation” was a nice idea but wrong—that bacteria were everywhere and they could get into stuff and grow, causing food to go bad for example.  Still more important to the story of the original cultural reception of bacteria was the acceptance of the germ theory of disease. Very important, as it helped prevent many mysterious ailments that had before not been understood or, worse, attributed to the wrath of God. The most diabolical disease ever to harrow the minds and bodies of the Europeans—the black plague—was caused by a bacterium. A bacterium carried by rats and fleas but a bacterium: Yersinia pestis.  Another scary killer, leprosy, was also laid at the feet of the bacterial bad guys. Not to mention tuberculosis—the deathly ailment of choice among the romantic beauties and deep souls of 19th century Europe.  And of course syphillis, caused by the impolitic reproduction of a wriggling bacterium, the spirochete Treponema, at home in the human genital tract as it is in the hominid brain.

Needless to say, bacteria got a bad rap. As long as we paint them with too broad a brush: for bacteria are not all bad. As with prejudices against certain ethnic groups, our prejudice against them—“germs” we call them, as if the matter ended there—is based on first impressions and ignorance. Fortunately, this is changing. The trajectory of human knowledge goes from ignorance to recognition accompanied by fear of the unknown. There is a brief window where we become familiar and gain some knowledge, leading us to be less frightened. Finally, we may take for granted whatever we learned, forgetting about it—making it imperative that we keep on top of our knowledge, continuing to learn.

The Other Side of Fear

It turns out that bacteria’s potential for destruction is a drop in the bucket compared to their capacity for creation, transformation, survival and evolution.  We live on a bacteria-infused planet with powers comparable to those of a superhero. As fast as a speeding neuron, more powerful than locomotive. This is true. Bacteria conduct  signals via electrochemistry just as our brain does. Stronger, in a way, even than Superman, plate tectonics on Earth is partially a microbial phenomenon. Tiny skeleton-producing plankton in the sea fall to the ocean floor when they die. Their calcium carbonate accumulates, producing a lubricant for the spreading of tectonic plates. When the continental plates crash into each other, mountains appear. While not themselves bacteria, the marine microbes involved in mountain building had bacterial ancestors. Genetic evidence is quite clear on the once-controversial topic: the oxygen-using parts of our cells, the mitochondria, have free-living bacterial ancestors. So do the green parts of plant cells, the chloroplasts, and other-colored photosynthetic organelles in kelp and seaweed cells. Like the little marine microbes making shells that help make and move mountains, so the cells of our body come from bacteria that symbiotically merged. The original encounter of the different kinds of bacteria may have been precipitated by one infecting another but not killing it, or by one eating another and not fully digesting it. Bacteria don’t have immune systems to reject foreign beings. Eating without digesting and invading without killing happen all the time in the bacterial world, leading not only to infection but to transformation, and the acquisition of new powers. The ancestors of plant cells were not photosynthetic but received their solar power from the bacteria they ate but didn’t digest. The ancestors to animal cells were poisoned by oxgyen but, invaded by oxygen users that didn’t kill all of them, the ones that survived became powerful aerobes—able not only to detoxify reactive and potentially deadly oxygen gas, but to make energetic use of it.  Long before humans, cyanobacteria—the green bacteria, that became trapped in ancestral plant cells—poisoned the planet. Taking the carbon from carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and hydrogen from dihydrogen oxide—water—they blew off oxygen gas as they spread. This very reactive gas spread, burning the tissues of surface organisms that could not get out of the way into the mud, or evolve tolerance. Long before the Industrial Revolution or the Information Age, trillions of bacterial modules, each with a separate set of genes were performing natural experiments in recombination, genetic engineering. They were metabolically evolving, and still show a much greater metabolic diversity—the basic instructions for growing in the cosmic environment—than all plants and animals combined. Bacteria live inside rocks and in geysers using inorganic chemical reactions, they can grow by fermentation and without oxygen, they can use light instead of food for energy, they can “breathe” arsenic, and on and on. Just one of their great inventions, the photosynthesis which produces oxygen as a “waste” and meanwhile grows food at room temperature with nanotechnological precision, would represent a tremendous breakthrough if it could be replicated in the laboratory. If we could only do what the “lowly” germs whom we were so quick culturally to peg—first as natural curiosities, and then as dreaded pathogens—if we were able to do technologically only a fraction of what they can do biologically, we would be able to produce green power plants, biodegradable plastic, rubber, and other materials,  and designer foods without destroying the environment as we otherwise tend to. There is much more to be said about bacteria and you should check out my co-authored book, Microcosmos: Four Billion Years of Bacterial Evolution if you want to know more. But, in terms of the cultural relevance of bacteria, I think they are. Not just because of themselves, but because the example of humanity’s historical encounter with bacteria—which has led to disease prevention, pasteurization, characterization of the replicating antics of the DNA molecule, biotechnology, and a growing appreciation of the deep role they have played in evolution—is an object lesson in learning in general. We don’t know what we don’t know. Once we do encounter something new, our initial response is often fear. Nothing in life is to be feared, only understood, wrote Nobel laureate Marie Curie. And so it is: we must, to understand and continue to live in our world, move beyond fear to understanding. Whereas we once didn’t know of bacteria, and then feared bacteria as our mortal enemies, we must now recognize that we are in part bacteria. Some 10 per cent of the dry weight of our bodies comes from bacteria, and this doesn’t include the symbiotic groupies who “togethered” to make animal cells in the first place.  Even today we cannot digest our food or produce vitamin B12 without gut bacteria. Yogurt with its lactic acid and other bacteria help us to remain healthy and free of the overgrowth of fungi, also natural hangers-on to the human body. If bacteria are the enemy we have met them and they are, to a surprisingly large extent, us. A fascinating recent example is the intracellular oxygen- and nitrogen-containing gas compounds that our bodies naturally deploy. This is a whole complicated aspect of the human immune system that was only discovered in the 1990s.  Interestingly, those ancient oxygen-using bacteria that merged with anaerobic cells to become our mitochondria play a central part. Without plenty of functioning mitochondria, our immune system becomes significantly impaired. It is for this reason that some scientists suggest that the billions of dollars being spent on AIDs research—first set up before this discovery in the 1990s of the ancient bacteria-based immune system—is being wasted.

In the end the cultural relevance of bacteria can hardly be overestimated. Understanding them is a key not only to developing clean industry, solar energy, and biotechnology, but to sustainable ecology and the future of effective medicine. Bacteria, whose life style is so different than that of larger life forms like us that they would have been considered a new form of life if they were found on Mars or Venus rather than on Earth, are key to understanding who, what, and why  we are on this crowded planet flowering forth new life forms for well over three billion years. They are not only pathogens but our ancestors, hardy organisms that survived multiple mass extinctions, coming back more diverse each time.

Perhaps the single most important lesson bacteria have to offer us culturally is what they say about the need to live and work together: merging bacteria, exchanging genes and living inside each other, becoming together the basic module for animals, plants, and all larger organisms, are radically diverse. Their principle is one of inclusion, incorporating more different and diverse types into ever more potent and sustainable metabolisms. We may fear the unknown but they seem to embrace it—literally!

Dorion Sagan

B is for Bacteria

Saturday, May 9th, 2009


All life evolved from bacteria. Billions of years before humans evolved, these single-celled organisms managed to transform the planet’s surface and atmosphere into a chemical state that allowed life to emerge. Without bacteria, there would be no air to breathe, no soil for growth. In fact, our bodies are colonized by bacteria. There’s actually 10 times more bacteria in our guts than cells in our bodies. Plus, bacteria can talk. The term is called “quorum sensing.” When a crowd of bacteria get together they communicate through chemical signaling, and by using their receptors like an antennae, they lock-on to signals, change their behavior by altering their gene expression, and stop acting like individuals and begin thinking like the group. And, if it serves the purpose of the collective, a bacterium’s dedication is so intense, it will even commit suicide. Of course there are bad bacteria, but many are friendly, in fact, experts say that germs are our future, and probiotics or good germs, are slated to be the antibiotics of the 21st century. And now, with the advent of synthetic biology, bacteria are being hacked. Currently, scientists aim to create everything from edible bacteria that can fight cavities and produce vitamins to microbial fuel cells powered by glucose and sewage. But considering that researchers at J. Craig Venter Institute have already engineered a bacterial genome from scratch, it’s evident that bacteria will be tomorrow’s factories, programmed to carry out a range of tasks such as manufacturing pharmaceuticals and sequestering carbon dioxide. Even information technologists are dreaming of encoding Earth’s history inside the artificial DNA of bacteria in case of catastrophe. For years, bacteria has had a bad rap. But those days are over. (Just ask biologist Lynn Margulis.)