Tuesday, April 28, 2009

In Awe of the Power of the Prokaryotes

Isaac Newton did his best work over a period of about a year during which he was holed up in a cottage in the country with a pen, lots of ink, and a book with 600 blank pages (a blank book was an extremely rare treasure back in the 17th century). He hardly ever left the cottage because a bout of the Black Plague was rampaging through England. Isaac had nothing to do but think, and write. During that year he developed the basis for modern physics. If not for the plague, he might never have written all that stuff down and would be known today only as the autistic savant who got lost in Alchemy.

Well, maybe.

Following up on my discomfort with the reports about Swine Flu (thanks y'all for calming me down), I read a fascinating article yesterday about how bacteria affects behavior in animals. The article, simply called "Madness," by Gerald Callahan (published in Emerging Infectious Diseases magazine*) describes the way a certain bacteria causes ants to cling to the tips of the blades of grass at sunset and sunrise, not coincidentally when cattle feed. The bacteria is serving a parasite whose lifespan includes moving through the digestive system of cows. The parasite must move from inside the ant to inside the cow. Somehow that bacteria makes the ants go crazy. Instead of returning to the ant colony, like the sane ants, they cling to the grass, giving themselves up to the cows.

As Callahan points out, there's no way we can imagine that these ants had abusive parents or suffered from any trauma. It's the bacteria that made them do it.

It's not just the ants, you know. We, too, are profoundly affected by the prokaryotes that are a part of our biosystems. From the article:

Gardening in T. gondii [cat parasite] cyst-infested soil, handling infected meat, or emptying litter boxes used by infected cats can result in infection. In fact, nearly half the people in this world have T. gondii cysts in the brain. T. gondii has never figured out a way to make humans palatable to cats, but that doesn't mean people are unaffected by the parasite. In psychological tests, women with T. gondii cysts in the brain were more outgoing and warm-hearted than uninfected controls, and men infected with the parasite were more jealous and suspicious than uninfected men - behavior with a twist, a protozoan twist. **

I'm telling you, these little dudes - I'm talking about bacteria and viruses - they may not be able to build rocket ships or write poetry, but the world belongs to them! The next time someone tells me I'm crazy, or I think I'm going crazy, maybe I'll blame it on the Prokaryotes. Why not?

*Yes I am a serious nerd.
**Just one more reason I am not a cat person, though maybe I would be nicer if I were infected.


willow said...

Now I'm feeling like the paranoid Woody Allen when he thinks he has a brain tumor in Hannah and her Sisters.

John Hayes said...

This all puts us "in our place," which may be a good thing. I love that photo of the hanging spoons!

Hilarywho said...

If I were an alcoholic and required to recognize a higher power, it would have to be the prokaryotes!

Reya Mellicker said...

I'm not going to worship them ... but I'm thinking about blaming them for every one of my character flaws.


R.L. Bourges said...

I blame it all on the bossa nova, myself. :-)

Siobhán said...

Hi Reya
Thoroughly enjoyed your last few posts. DC sounds stunning.
I've tagged you for a meme at 100 Words from Dublin if you'd like to participate.

Washington Cube said...

What do you mean bacteria don't write poetry? I've gotten a poem from a germ:

Why don't you sleep with me?
I am already in your bed!
I have gotten inside your head.
Me & Me could become "we."

Listen. It was his first effort and he doesn't have hands, so not bad. Sort of a wandering minstrel hurdy gurdy kinda germ.


deborah said...

Go hang yourself, you old M.D.!
You shall not sneer at me.
Pick up your hat and stethoscope,
Go wash your mouth with laundry soap;
I contemplate a joy exquisite
I'm not paying you for your visit.
I did not call you to be told
My malady is a common cold.

By pounding brow and swollen lip;
By fever's hot and scaly grip;
By those two red redundant eyes
That weep like woeful April skies;
By racking snuffle, snort, and sniff;
By handkerchief after handkerchief;
This cold you wave away as naught
Is the damnedest cold man ever caught!

Give ear, you scientific fossil!
Here is the genuine Cold Colossal;
The Cold of which researchers dream,
The Perfect Cold, the Cold Supreme.
This honored system humbly holds
The Super-cold to end all colds;
The Cold Crusading for Democracy;
The Führer of the Streptococcracy.

Bacilli swarm within my portals
Such as were ne'er conceived by mortals,
But bred by scientists wise and hoary
In some Olympic laboratory;
Bacteria as large as mice,
With feet of fire and heads of ice
Who never interrupt for slumber
Their stamping elephantine rumba.

A common cold, gadzooks, forsooth!
Ah, yes. And Lincoln was jostled by Booth;
Don Juan was a budding gallant,
And Shakespeare's plays show signs of talent;
The Arctic winter is fairly coolish,
And your diagnosis is fairly foolish.
Oh what a derision history holds
For the man who belittled the Cold of Colds!

Ogden Nash

among my favorites
and I remembered most of it
sorry not to be a calming influence
and happy to love you
and your talent

Reya Mellicker said...

That's funny! Virus-inspired poetry. My goodness, they are all-powerful, aren't they?

Merle Sneed said...

Reya, please use fewer big words. I am easily confused. Great post, I think. :)

Reya Mellicker said...

Another virus-inspired moment: a friend is headed up to New England for her daughter's parents weekend (her daughter is in school up there).

My friend (the mother) sent the following email to her daughter:

Dear J,

I have a swelling the size of a small apple in my arm pit. It has a black crust on it. Do you think I should still come for a visit?

Steve said...

Fascinating! That was a seriously interesting biology lesson! :)

(Why are you reading "Emerging Infectious Diseases," though?? Every time I read something like that I wind up thinking I have one.)

Joanna said...

In high school we had to read "Animals without Backbones" and it turned me away from the invertebrate world. I think it was the description of a worm crawling out of a person's nose that did me in. To this day I can't even think about dust mites. But last year I read a book that helped me gain perspective with its fascinating essay on invertebrate life, including the prokaryotes. It's Waiting for Aphrodite, by Sue Hubbell.

Reya Mellicker said...

Joanna, thank you! I'll look it up.

Steve I love science! Especially weird science, or as a friend calls it, science + poetry. Seeing the world from different perspectives really helps me keep from rigidifying in my own narrow paradigm.

As for parasitic cysts, we all have something or another that sounds creepy but is either benign or actually helpful.


Ronda Laveen said...

Golly, gosh, gee wiz. Blogger ate my comment again. Will redo a shorter version.

I saw a recent documentary on bacteria that can create other than normal behavior in other insects or animals. The host animals do things that are harmful to themselves and beneficial to the parasite bacteria. It is fascinating how the bacteria's gentic program is entirely focused on the prime directive of existing long enough to replicate and bending others to their will.

It sounds like we are a "bacteria cafeteria."

Kim said...

Last night I had the opportunity to hear a lecture by Dr. Maya Angelou and she talks about finding rainbows in the clouds I think that cysts in the brain that make women nicer are the rainbow in the cloud for this blog post. I smiled for the first time all afternoon. Thank you!

Lover of Life said...

Have you read "The Botany of Desire"?

My daughter is bring us her cat... :-(

Reya Mellicker said...

I LOVED The Botany of Desire for a million reasons. yes!!

Delwyn said...

Maybe its not

"You are what you eat"

but you are what you host...

Delwyn said...

PS I'm flying to NZ tomorrow and am going to wear a mask on the plane even if the airlines promise us that the air is cleansed...

Lizzy Frizzfrock said...

Merle Sneed's comment cracked me up!!! LOL. You are reading some unusual stuff. Wonder how many of those guys are in my body... prokaryotes sort of rhymes with karaoke, hmmm. I think I'm a little strange.

I love it when you put in the photos of the hanging spoons!

hele said...

my mind was still dancing around this
"Psychoanalysis has to get out of the consulting room and analyze all kinds of things. You have to see that the buildings are anorexic, you have to see that the language is schizogenic, that "normalcy" is manic, and medicine and business are paranoid." James Hillman

when i read your post.

this line "As Callahan points out, there's no way we can imagine that these ants had abusive parents or suffered from any trauma. It's the bacteria that made them do it."

added a whole new slant to it.

A Cuban In London said...

I always thought good, ol' Isaac had locked himself up in that shack with just an apple for company, but now I see I was wrong :-). The images are great. Many thanks.

Greetings from London.