Many things keep people and government planners up at night, such as fear of nuclear war or giant meteorites. Will a big bang wipe out humanity, or could something tiny and seemingly less significant be a greater risk to humans?
A group of scientists at the University of California, San Diego, have discovered something that alters scientific understanding about the capabilities of bacteria spores, which were previously thought to be inert objects.
Tibi Puiu writing for zmescience.com, wrote that the scientists have discovered that bacteria spores can use their stored electrochemical potential energy to perform an environmental computation without needing metabolic activity.
In layperson’s terms, we thought dormant bacteria were sleeping, but they are actually calculating environmental signals for the best time to awaken.
The team’s findings not only have massive implications for how carefully we should observe sources of potentially dormant bacteria on Earth but also consider how to safeguard against potentially deadly ones in space.
Professor Gürol Süel, a molecular biologist at the University of California, San Diego, discovered that cells in a deep dormant state could process information.
Süel and his team’s new research has suggested alternative ways to deal with pathogenic spores, with implications for what to expect from extraterrestrial life. They consider that if scientists were to discover life on Mars or Venus, it would most likely be dormant.
However, taking into account their latest research findings, they have shown that a life form that appears to be inert may still be capable of thinking and planning its next steps. Spores can count environmental signals without expending metabolic energy and are constantly watching for the right time to awaken.
Why should we be concerned?
A group of researchers in the United States and Japan discovered deep-sea microorganisms that had been dormant for over 100 million years. When the extracted microbes were studied in the lab, the researchers discovered that the bacteria began to grow. This has implications that maybe bacteria from other planets could be dormant, and we should be careful that we don’t awaken them. Other scientists have been concerned recently about potentially dangerous bacteria frozen in the Tibetan plateau reawakening.
The benefit of researching potentially dangerous bacteria
The team considers that we must learn more about how bacteria enter dormancy and come back to life. While scientists have known for a long time that hydration and resumption of metabolism are what bring bacterial spores back to life, there are still many unknowns. One critical question is how these spores monitor their environment for favorable conditions while ostensibly sleeping.
Professor Süel and their team have now solved this perplexing puzzle. They discovered that spores retain the ability to assess their surroundings by using stored electrochemical energy, which functions similarly to an electrical capacitor.
Using dormant Bacillus subtilis spores, the researchers discovered that the microbes could detect small environmental inputs such as potassium ion fluxes. If the sum of these signals surpassed a certain threshold, the spores would emerge from dormancy and resume biological activity.
Dormant bacteria can even analyze false positive environmental signals so they don’t hatch too early
Professor Süel’s team discovered an amazing fact that even short-lived environmental signals don’t wake bacteria when detected by their spores. When receiving signals from their environment, the spores released some of their stored potassium and added up these favorable events to determine the appropriate time to ‘hatch.’
This mechanism, according to Süel, is very similar to how neurons work.
“Small and short inputs are added up over time in both bacteria and neurons to determine if a threshold is reached.” “When spores reach the threshold, they begin to regenerate, while neurons fire action potentials to communicate with other neurons,” he explains.
However, unlike neurons, which are some of the most energy-dependent biological cells in the human body, spores can count signals without requiring any metabolic energy.
The Many Faces of Bacteria: From Food Poisoning to Anthrax
They are all around us and within us. Some are beneficial, some are harmful, and some, of course, cause disease. Bacteria spores are virtually everywhere; some cause food poisoning, while others can cause anthrax, which is fatal.
According to one simple definition, bacteria are microscopic single-celled organisms that lack a distinct nucleus. They can take the form of spheres, rods, or spirals. They can be found in almost any environment, including soil, water, organic matter, and animal bodies.
Bacteria were the first complex life forms to appear on Earth more than three billion years ago. They’re also among the most resilient, capable of drastically altering their metabolism to enter a dormant state that allows them to survive for extended periods while ceasing most biological activity.
Samples collected in space could bring potential risks to Earth
It is even possible that an asteroid or samples collected in space will return to Earth with deadly bacteria. It hasn’t gone unnoticed by some experts that NASA’s Mars Sample Return Mission could bring with it potential risks to Earth. However, bacteria from space may be killed by harsh conditions or sterilization processes. Supposing samples from Mars contain bacteria, if they survive, it is possible that they will be unable to adapt to the Earth’s atmosphere and will die out. However, the bacteria may adapt and thrive in the Earth’s atmosphere, which could have disastrous consequences.
Is studying bacteria worth the risk?
As scientists study ancient bacteria, they hope to learn more about how they have survived for so long and find ways to apply this knowledge to modern-day problems.
However, there is a risk that in doing so, they may inadvertently release a long-dormant, extremely dangerous pathogen. If this pathogen were to infect the global population, it could make the coronavirus look insignificant in comparison. The scientists are aware of this risk but feel that the potential rewards are worth the risk.