Sunday, March 08, 2009

Microcosm: E. coli and the new science of life

by Carl Zimmer

This is the greatest kind of science writing: science-y enough to satisfy the nerd in you, easy enough to be understood by the dunce in you. It will give you an appreciation of the amazing complexity of single-cell organisms, and particularly the fascinating history of E. coli, which has been front and center for most of the advances in biology over the last 50-plus years.

Did you know there are more microbes living in your gut — allowing you to digest and absorb things you couldn't otherwise — than there are cells in the rest of your body? So who's really in charge, where do you end and the bugs begin; talk about being one with the universe!

Another thing that really struck me was the complexity of the E. coli metabolism, a wicked network of alternatives and redundancies that allow thte organism to adapt and survive in harsh and constantly changing conditions. On the face of things, it seems obvious that humans and other "higher order" animals are more complex: we have more parts; we can do more (visible) things; we appear to shape and control our environment; we plan, think, and solve. But looking at a (very simplified) diagram of the E. coli metabolism, it occurred to me that a metabolism is a network, and just as the neural network of the human brain gives us intelligence, the complexity of the E. coli metabolism represents a certain kind of unconscious, cumulative intelligence at the cellular level.

Then again, some strains of E. coli can kill you, or at least put you under house arrest, in a manner of speaking.

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