A student’s view of a cell under a light microscope is misleading. It reveals only a tiny fraction of what is really going on. Within that package of life, invisible to the student’s gaze, complex machines work together in cellular factories. Signals pass back and forth in complex networks. Libraries of code are transcribed and translated into machine parts. Security guards open and close gates, and emergency response teams repair damage. Even a simple bacterial cell has the equivalent of a city council, library, fire department, police department, industrial center, transportation infrastructure, disposal and recycling center, civil defense system and much more. Here are just a few snippets from recent scientific papers that zoom in past the microscope lens to reveal wonders unimagined just a few decades ago.
- Electric cells: You’ve heard of electric eels; how about electric bacteria? Researchers at Harvard, publishing in Science, were curious about the electrical properties of cells:
Bacterial membrane potential provides a major component of thedriving force for oxidative phosphorylation, membrane transport, and flagellar motion. Yet this voltage is inaccessible to techniques of conventional electrophysiology, owing to the small size of bacteria and the presence of a cell wall. Little is known about the electrophysiology of bacteria at the level of single cells.
So they checked. They observed E. coli bacteria producing electrical spikes at a rate of about one per second. The electrical charge is generated by ion channels in the membrane that create electrical gradients, working against the natural tendency of charges to cancel out. “Spiking was sensitive to chemical and physical perturbations and coincided with rapid efflux of a small-molecule fluorophore,” they said, “suggesting that bacterial efflux machinery may be electrically regulated.” In other words, they were not observing a stochastic effect, but a coordinated action of many ion channels that must organize their active transport mechanisms as a unit. They speculated that the spiking represents a stress response by the organism. Coordinated electrical response is known in higher organisms, like electric eels and humans, but “These simple estimates show that some of the tenets of neuronal electrophysiology may need rethinking in the context of bacteria.”….
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