Top Science Stories of 2010: 6 Degrees of Microbial Separation

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Thanks to Viktor at StrippedScience for letting me borrow his microbe New Year's cartoon!

Happy New Year! I was catching up on my blog reader and came across the NatureNews top science stories of 2010. I was curious how many of these stories would have something to do with microbes... turns out quite a few do. Of the 12 science news-worthy events/discoveries selected, 3 were directly related: the claim of Arsenic-based life story, the new HIV drug Truvada (including viruses with microbes), and the synthetic genome from the Ventner institute.

In the style of 6 degrees of Kevin Bacon I was curious to see how many of the remaining 9 stories I could connect to microbes, or the microbial world. I was hopeful that I could connect them all in. It is my deeply held belief, after all, that microbes rule the world and play key roles in just about all aspects of our daily life. In the end I think I got all but two (see my stem cell and morality fails below). You will have to tell me if you buy it, or if you think I have sunk too deep into the parallel nerd-world that I co-habitate.

"Natural Disasters Pummelled the Earth" - Earthquakes and volcanoes provide us with occasional widows into the subsurface earth. An emerging field of study related to what I work on is the deep subsurface biosphere. New evidence continues to support the idea that there are vast microbial populations in the subsurface, and they may influence the chemistry of our oceans (stay tuned for a post on this soon!). I wonder how earth quakes and volcanoes affect microbial populations by bringing material up from the deep subsurface and exposing it to the shallow environment, and also how new cracks in the ocean crust allow increased entrainment of seawater and how that might affect deep microbial populations on a local scale.
The connection? These natural disasters take place in the Earth's crust, where tons of microbes live, and the effect that these disasters have on these microbial communities is unknown, and potentially interesting.

"Ancient Kissing Cousins Were Found" - This refers to the studies of Neanderthal DNA and new evidence of gene flow between Neanderthals and Homo sapins. The initial connection is that nowhere is inter-species gene flow more common and well-studied than in bacteria, but I realize might be stretching "connection" a bit. Maybe one of you can come up with something more creative.

"Climage Change Policy Stalled" - The connection here is again biased by my area of interest, but much of climate change change is related to carbon cycling, especially in the atmosphere. As I mentioned above, there is some new work out (post forthcoming) about role that deep subsurface microbes may play in the global carbon cycle. While this is nothing to do with the politics of climate change policy, microbes may hold the key to some of the unanswered questions about Earth's carbon cycle.

"Oil Gushed into the Gulf of Mexico" - This one is easy... some microbes eat oil, and may be key to the recovery of the gulf from this environmental catastrophe. There is the potential for developing oil-eating super microbes for future oil spill remediation, and there are many microbiologists involved in the research into the impacts that this spill is having and will continue to have on the gulf.

"Stem-Cell Research Rode a Roller Coaster" - (Disclaimer - I know very little about stem cells!) While not microbes themselves, stem cells are certainly microscopic. That's it... I got nothing. Any ideas?

"Japan's Space Agency had a Hit and Miss" - Are there microbes in outer space? We certainly don't know, but this story refers (in part) to the retrieval of some grains from an asteroid. It has been hypothesized that the first life on Earth (microbes, of course) or precursor molecules to those first living cells were transported on asteroids. This type of retrieval could help is begin to answer questions about the origin of life if organic-type molecules were to be found on asteroid material.

"Astronomers Joined the Dark Side" - This refers to a decadal report by astronomers and astrophysicists that makes recommendations for what projects should be supported by NASA - the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) that will investigate dark matter, and in this case which should be postponed - the Hubble telescope replacement) due to budget shortages. While neither of these mentioned projects are microbial, this report certainly will influence astrobiology research, which is microbial in nature at this point.

"The Budget Crunch Hit European Science" - European scientists study microbes, therefore budget cuts to science funding influences the study of microbes. Its not very witty, I admit, but its a connection.

"A Morality Expert was Accused of Mischief" - Maybe he could just claim that his microbes made him do it. Seeing as we are just beginning to understand the links between the human microbiome and human health and behavior, no one could definitively proove him wrong. Too much of a stretch? Fine. Its all I got.

I poked around for some other top science stories of the year and found that Discover's top 100 list had 10 stories that were directly related to microbes. I thought about trying to connect the other 90, but decided to spare you.

Also, Carl Zimmer has a post about his top 10 posts of the year (according to readership), and 3 of them are directly microbial.


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