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Lessons Aquatic
Microbes Can Teach


Bacteria and PCBs

Mutual Arrangements

Medicine from Microbes

Profile of a Researcher

In Memoriam:
Ken Tenore

What the Eye Can't See
Saccharophagus degradans 2-40 - by Ronald Weiner

Bacteria often get a bad rap as bearers of disease and pestilence. But microbial forces in the environment, orders of magnitude smaller than the human eye can see, can maintain or improve the ecological status quo, sustaining the Earth's delicate balancing act. Microbes live in some of the most unlikely environments around — the hottest, deepest, coldest, and most toxic. Many break down noxious compounds in the course of meeting their own nutritional needs. And the more they are exposed to these compounds, the more efficient they become.

In the process of going about their metabolic business, many microbes inadvertently join in the fight against contaminants of human origin. Others break down tough-to-dispose-of natural products, such as crab shells and giant kelp, keeping the ocean floor debris-free and recycling copious quantities of organic carbon. Through the powers of symbiotic association, still other bacteria protect their charges against disease or infection with antibiotic assets. Some may prove valuable sources of drugs that can fight human diseases.

By understanding what microbes do naturally to preserve Earth's equilibrium, can we harness their power to clean up our own messes? Can we help them do what they already do best? In this issue of Chesapeake Quarterly, we dip into the world of microbial ecology, drawing upon the work of several different researchers to explore recurrent themes in microbial interactions, themes such as competition, symbiosis, and adaptation that we more commonly associate with the macroscopic world — the world that we can see.

This issue explores recent discoveries by a diverse group of scientists devoted to uncovering the secret capabilities of the microbial underworld. Jennifer Becker, a bioenvironmental engineer at the University of Maryland College Park (UMCP), studies the ecological interactions among bacteria that break down a chemical contaminant associated with the dry cleaning industry, called PCE. Kevin Sowers, at the University of Maryland's Biotechnology Institute (UMBI) in Baltimore, researches microbes that degrade related contaminants called PCBs, which wend their way through the food chain, often affecting top predators in the marine ecosystem, such as birds and fish. Robert Belas, also from UMBI, studies a group of bacteria with antibiotic properties — a group that may protect coral reefs from the diseases that cause bleaching. UMBI's Russell Hill works to identify drugs from the sea that come from bacterial sources. And Ronald Weiner, also from UMCP, studies microbes with tremendous powers of degradation, capable of recycling all sorts of marine matter.

When James Lovelock wrote Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth in 1979, his theories met with great skepticism. To many, the premise that the "entire range of living matter on Earth, from whales to viruses, and from oaks to algae," may function as a single living entity, capable of "manipulating the Earth's atmosphere to suit its overall needs and endowed with faculties and powers far beyond those of its constituent parts" seemed too neat and too simple. But as the microbial world reveals more and more of its secrets, this idea of global homeostasis, of a planetary balancing act, grows more and more intriguing. Maybe it is still far fetched. Or maybe microbes, if we give them half a chance, can play a key role in helping the world's ecosystem keep its biological footing. Read and decide for yourself.

— Erica Goldman

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