Escherichia coli
A scientific illustration of the bacterium Escherichia coli. Credit: © Dr_Kateryna –

“Let’s take a moment of silence to thank our microbes,” said Stefano Bertuzzi, CEO of the American Society for Microbiology (ASM). “Without our microbes, we wouldn’t be here today, and you wouldn’t have all this oxygen available for life.”

About 150 people filled a room at the American Geophysical Union (AGU) headquarters in Washington, D. C., on a recent Thursday night as Bertuzzi introduced a lecture by Paul G. Falkowski, AGU Fellow and author of the new book Life’s Engines: How Microbes Made Earth Habitable.

“AGU members are not just geophysicists,” said AGU’s executive director and CEO Chris McEntee, sharing the introductions with Bertuzzi. “Many of our members also study how living things interact with our planet. That’s why AGU is so excited to have been able to partner with ASM to present this important and exciting public lecture.”

Falkowski, a biological oceanographer and professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey, took the audience on a journey from life’s most primitive beginnings to today’s complicated world, recounting how billions of years ago, microbes suddenly started excreting the precious oxygen humans breathe today.

The electron transfer “machine” first evolved in microbes.

Specifically, Falkowski focused on one process that all life experiences—a process of electron transfer that fuels life. In plants, this process is photosynthesis, whereby sunlight helps to convert water and carbon dioxide into sugars for the plant and a waste product called oxygen. Human cells, on the other hand, use oxygen from the air to obtain this energy. The electron transfer “machine” first evolved in microbes, Falkowski said.

“Nature made this engine once,” Falkowski said, “and it’s been used again and again” in a variety of forms.

At the end of Falkowski’s talk, which took place on 3 March, audience members asked questions about a myriad of topics, ranging from “Who really wrote On the Origin of Species?” (it was Charles Darwin) to “Will scientists find life on other planets?”—a question Falkowski thinks will be answered before researchers even figure out the origin of life on planet Earth.

“Microbes are the real stewards of the planet.”

“I love microbes because I grew up looking at them through Leeuwenhoek-inspired microscopes my dad made,” said Lily Steenblik Hwang, a freelance science journalist who attended the lecture. “I’ll probably end up buying and reading the book.”

“The biggest takeaway for this book from my perspective is that we’re the fragile species, that microbes are the real stewards of the planet,” Falkowski told Eos.

—JoAnna Wendel, Staff Writer

Citation: Wendel, J. (2016), Author tells tale of cellular engines that power life, Eos, 97, doi:10.1029/2016EO049205. Published on 30 March 2016.

Text © 2016. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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