E. coli…It’s What’s for Dinner

Who knows how to make E. coli exciting?  Carl Zimmer over at The Loom, that’s who. He’s been generous enough to post his remarks from a speech he gave at the Chautauqua Institution, and it’s compelling stuff (assuming you’ll allow the life of microbes to fit into your definition of compelling, at least for 20 minutes or so). My 20 minutes was enough to convince me that I’ll be buying his book on my next Amazon go-round. Here’s a taste from the post:

In many ways, E. coli works much like our own cells do. That’s why scientists who studied E. coli have won a dozen or so Nobel Prizes. The French biologist Jacques Monod declared, what is true for E. coli is true for the elephant.

Microbes are also a tremendously important part of the biosphere. For one thing, there are just so many of them.

–If you went outside and picked up a pinch of dirt, you’d be picking up a billion microbes.

–Inside your own body, there are 10 times more microbial cells than your own cells.

–There are so many microbes because they can live so many places. They can live inside a grain of salt, or in acid or in boiling water.

–The sea floor is rife with microbes for half a mile down. According to a recent estimate, the carbon in sea floor microbes alone weigh 90 petagrams. That’s 200 trillion pounds of microbial life.

–There are about a billion times more microbes on Earth than there are stars in the universe.

Because there are so many microbes, and because they have so many different ways of making a living, they’re incredibly important ecologically.  If every human on Earth stepped on a spaceship and abandoned the planet, the ecosystems of the ocean and the land would go on pretty much as before. But if the single-celled life on Earth disappeared, the rest of life would probably die.


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