Ever since ocean microbes were first discovered years ago, researchers believed that they survived more on an individual basis, even when in large colonies. Each microbe competed with those around it for the necessary resources to live and reproduce.
That simplistic view of ocean microbes is changing with new research conducted by a team from MIT. The subject of their study was the ocean bacteria comprising 185 strains of Vibrionaceae bacteria. Their tests involved nearly 35,000 interactions between the different strains of bacteria.
In studying ocean bacteria, the team noticed that some of the bacteria within the group would release a toxic chemical into the surrounding water when the group was threatened. The toxin, which turns out to be a natural antibiotic had no effect on members of their same group, but turned out to be very detrimental to invaders. These few bacteria seemed to be acting as a defense mechanism for the good of the collective group, which completely surprised the researchers.
Further studying what happened, they discovered that the rest of the related group of bacteria carried a gene that made them immune to the chemical weapon. Non-members of the group lacked that gene and found themselves susceptible to the antibiotic toxin.
Professor Martin Polz, one of the MIT scientists involved in the study commented:
We can’t know what the environmental interactions really are, because microbes are too small for us to observe them in action. But we think the antibiotics play a role in fending off competitors. Of course, those competitors could also produce antibiotics. It’s a potential arms race out there.
Otto Cordero, a postdoc member of the team, also commented on their surprise, saying:
It’s easy to imagine bacteria in the environment as selfish creatures capable only of reproducing as fast as conditions allow, without any social organization. But that is the mind-blowing part: Bacterial wars are organized along the lines of populations, which are groups of closely related individuals with similar ecological activities.
Professor Gerry Wright, director of the Michael G. DeGroote Institute for Infectious Disease Research at McMaster University saw the research as being significant in the field of antibiotics and medical research, saying:
This paper [shows] that bacteria work together in complex relationships that have largely been underappreciated by the research community as a whole. The impact on our understanding of resistance is critical. … This work is really important in showing that we can, in fact, study these big questions in populations of natural bacteria, and we can learn something important about how we use antibiotics and avoid resistance in the clinic.
I always love it when I read studies like this when researchers are surprised by the sophistication and complexity of life, especially at the microscopic levels of bacteria. When I studied molecular cell biology in graduate school, I was continually blown away by the details and complexity that exist in living cells all the way down to the molecular level. The more you see, the more impossible evolution becomes.
The way these bacteria work together and protect each other is absolutely amazing as well as a testimony to the infinite wisdom of our Creator God. And if you really want something mind blowing, realize that the same God that so intricately designed life down to the molecular and atomic level is also the same God that is infinitely immense and actually is outside and beyond our physical universe. Who wouldn’t want to worship such an all-powerful, all-knowing and all-existing Creator of heaven and earth?
Weapon-Wielding Marine Microbes May Protect Populations from Foes, Science Daily, Sept. 6, 2012.
This presentation was given live to some 2000 people, many of them students, at South Africas renowned university town of Stellenbosch. Afterwards, 30 university students came forward to publically profess faith in Christ. Its clear that in this age of science and technology, we need to deal with the evolution issue head-on, from an unashamedly biblical standpoint. (Illustrated presentation, including English subtitles)
Featuring: Dr Carl Wieland
Length: 57 min