¬†¬†¬†¬† I was blown away when I read in Harvard magazine (“The Undiscovered Planet” by Jonathan Shaw, November-December 2007) about the amazing research going on in microbiology!¬†¬†¬†
¬†¬†¬†¬† It turns out that life on¬†earth is vastly more diverse than anyone had ever imagined.¬† And most of that diversity is at the microbial level.¬† Scientists have come to believe there are billions¬† of species of microbes, ‘exceeding the number of ‘large’ organisms by several orders of magnitude,’ writes Shaw.¬†
¬†¬†¬†¬† Microbes are so diverse, it turns out, that a¬†human being is genetically more similar to a potato than certain¬†microbes are to other microbes!¬† (A potato???)
¬†¬†¬†¬† This stunning new research calls for reorganizing the traditional¬†classification system¬†of life on earth.¬† Until recently divided into¬†animal, plant, fungus, and¬†one-celled organism ‘kingdoms,’ the¬†system is being redrawn to reflect scientists’ new knowledge.¬† The redrawn map has life on earth divided into three ‘kingdoms,’ two of which are made up entirely of microbes.¬† We–and all the other plants, animals, and fungi on earth–are but a small part of the third kingdom.¬† That third kingdom is characterized by organisms whose cells contain a nucleus.
¬†¬†¬†¬† So, other than being incredibly numerous and diverse, what is¬†so special about microbes?¬†¬†They have shaped our world, according to Roberto Kolter, a professor of microbiology and molecular genetics at Harvard Medical School.¬† They have¬†played a defining role in the planet’s development.¬† Kolter explains that microbes mediate all the important element cycles on Earth.¬†¬†Microbes form clouds, break down rocks, deposit minerals, fertilize plants, condition soils, and clean up toxic waste.¬†¬†
¬†¬†¬†¬† And microbes make human life possible, despite¬†the bad¬†rap¬†bacteria get in the form of anti-bacterial soaps, sponges, toilet paper, towels and cutting boards.¬†¬†¬†Microbes help us digest food and produce vitamins, and potect us against infection.¬† An estimated 100 trillion microbial cells live in and on a human being!¬† This is compared to the estimated 10 trillion human cells in one person.¬† Our lives would be impossible without the assistance of a great many microbes!
¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†Research in the burgeoning¬†field of microbiology is¬†in its infancy.¬†¬†According to paleontologist Andrew Knoll, the field will not reach its maturity in his research lifetime or in the research lifetimes of his¬†students.¬† He looks to “whole new horizons in simply understanding the diversity of life as it actually¬† exists–not what we thought existed because we could see it.”
¬†¬†¬†¬† Clearly, life on our planet is far more complex and diverse than we thought!¬† And perhaps humans’ place in the whole wondrous panoply is different from what we thought.¬† If you would like to read Jonathan Shaw’s entire article, just click on the link below.