No, not chemical connections.Not genetic connections. Not conceptual connections. How about electrical connections?
Deep on the ocean floor, colonies of bacteria appear to have connected themselves via microscopic power grids that would be the envy of any small town. Much remains unknown about the process, but if confirmed the findings could revolutionize scientists’ understanding of how the world’s smallest ecosystems operate.
Oxygen-breathing bacteria that live on the ocean bottom have a problem. Those sitting atop the sediment have ready access to oxygen in the water but not to the precious mineral nutrients that lie out of reach a centimeter or so below the ground. Meanwhile, those microbes that live in the sediment can access the nutrients, but they lack oxygen. How do both groups survive?
Before looking at a more radical example whereby symbiogenesis with bacteria played a key role in the evolution of a certain metazoan lineage, I thought it a good idea to stress the significance of the terraformers.
The common perception of bacteria is that they are primitive, single-celled organisms. Yet they are not primitive; they are extremely sophisticated in many ways. That’s something most readers of this blog can probably agree with. But I would also argue that, on balance, it is also misleading to think of bacteria as single-celled organisms when, in reality, they are more like cells that are part of superorganism. They form a web of connections. We’ll explore that in future blog entries.
But for now, consider another common perception of bacteria – they are minor players and easy to ignore except when they cause disease. Wrong. Our existence is built on the back of bacteria. Consider a recent survey of the ocean’s biotic diversity:
marine microbes account for up to 90% of all ocean biomass and collectively weigh the equivalent of 240 billion African elephants.
240 billion African elephants. And it’s safe to say that the majority of this microbial biomass is bacterial. Consider this from “Prokaryotes: The unseen majority” by William B. Whitman, David C. Coleman, and William J. Wiebe:
Thus, the total amount of prokaryotic carbon is 60–100% of the estimated total carbon in plants, and inclusion of prokaryotic carbon in global models will almost double estimates of the amount of carbon stored in living organisms. In addition, the earth’s prokaryotes contain 85–130 Pg of N and 9–14 Pg of P, or about 10-fold more of these nutrients than do plants, and represent the largest pool of these nutrients in living organisms.
In fact, how many bacterial cells exist on the planet? Answer – 5 x 10^30
And as any microbiologist will tell you, these cells are found everywhere we find life, including places where bacteria are the only life forms.
So why is all this significant?
Over a year and half ago, I laid out the four general expectations that arise from the hypothesis of front-loading evolution. One such expectation was that “front-loading would be linked to terraforming.” As I explained,
So if we are to front-load the existence of mice-like creatures into the genomes of single-celled organisms, we also need to ensure the Earth will be prepared, at some point, to receive the mice. And it is the preparation of a receptive Earth that we can call terraforming
Bacteria are easily viewed as the terraformers, where one of their most glorious successes was to draw from the ancient Earth’s abundant supplies of water and use this to oxygenate the atmosphere which in turn would facilitate the evolutionary emergence of eukaryotes, then metazoan. Yet there is much more to bacteria.
When it became clear that the genome of a single-celled eukaryotic organism did not need to be radically retooled to transition to the multicellular state of an organism like Volvox, one of Jerry Coyne’s colleagues commented, “Maybe all the hard work was done by bacteria.”
Indeed. Not only have bacteria terraformed our planet, but they probably facilitated metazoan evolution itself. In fact, they may have assisted metazoan evolution such that nothing like a metazoan would have emerged had bacteria not existed.
As a tease for this shift in thinking, consider some recent research:
Conventional thinking would have us believe that evolution is all about organisms adapting to the environments over time. Sure, but it probably goes deeper than this. There is no good reason to think that such adaptation is a purely a passive process, as if the environment itself molds organisms like an artist might shape clay. On the contrary, there is good reason to think organisms play an active role in this process, as if the clay was participating its own shape changes.