The Next Big Thing Is … Really Small
Posted by Richard Conniff on December 27, 2013
This is my latest for Conservation Magazine:
When the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in 2010, spilling 4.9 million barrels of petroleum into the Gulf of Mexico, the television cameras focused mostly on mopping-up efforts by human responders. But beneath the surface, away from the bright lights, the hard work of cleaning up the mess was being handled mainly by nontelegenic microbes. A group of little-known proteobacteria called Oceanospirillales, which normally occur in low numbers, suddenly proliferated. At one point, they represented 90 percent of the microbial species in and around the plume, according to research by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. These microbes did not merely gang up on the spill but also switched on genes specifically geared to digesting hydrocarbons. And when they had broken down the original pollutants into different chemical forms, other kinds of bacteria took their place in an ecological succession.
Seeing that hidden cleanup for the first time made the microbiological world suddenly seem capable of astonishing things. In the past, scientists could identify and begin to understand only the small fraction of microbes that would grow in a Petri dish; they thought of bacteria, fungi, and viruses mainly in terms of the diseases they could cause. But over the past ten years, genetic sequencing technology has made it practical to identify every single microbial species in its own environment and begin to understand how it functions there. And that has revealed not only that microbes are present everywhere, but that they influence everything—often to our considerable benefit.
Much of the recent excitement has focused on the human microbiome— with the idea that manipulating the microbes living in and around our own bodies will radically alter the practice of human medicine. But every plant and animal species has its own microbiome, too, and researchers are beginning to explore this microbial universe. Listening to them talk about this work, it’s easy to get the impression that microbes could dramatically change how we go about saving species, habitats, and perhaps Earth itself. Click below to read 10 ways it could happen.