Tuche & Automaton

Thursday, July 27, 2006

About E. coli

Escherichia coli (E. coli) was discovered in the first decade of the 20th century by the German bacteriologist Theodor Escherich (1857-1911) and according to Wikipedia “the number of individual E. coli bacteria in the faeces that one human passes in one day averages between 100 billion and 10 trillion”. It is the BacterioPoetic conviction that each of these bacteria is a piece of art more beautiful then the “Victory of Samothrace” and as such your poo hosts more art than the collections of all museums in the world put together.

Roughly around the same time Theodor Escherich was making his discovery, James Joyce was working on the sequence of books that have since become the hallmarks of modernism in literature. It is interesting to compare the impact on world culture of E. coli against the Ulysses; Joyce’s masterpiece published in 1921, of which he proclaimed it would take scholars centuries to uncover the riddles hidden therein. Little could Joyce have expected that in the end a work of biology as humble and yet as versatile as the E. coli proved to be far more elusive than the wanderings of Leopold Bloom or the simulation of Dublin in which Bloom lives on, created by a human mind of his scope. E. coli has become the workhorse of molecular biology, the time and resources spent on reverse engineering it by far exceeding the work done on the analysis of Ulysses. But whereas interpretation of Ulysses is the best way to make sure students of literature will never read again, bacteriologists can’t get enough of the E. coli: its mechanism still shaded in mystery, the wonder of its feats of adaptivity never ceasing.

Biology is conservative. The function and perhaps even the definition of creativity is to come up with novelty. In terms of burn-rate bacteria are surely more creative than, say, elephants, lemurs or even fruit flies because all these animals evolve much slower than the 3,5 hour it takes the E. coli to iterate a new generation. But bacteria are also impressive for the quality of the novelty they introduce.

Bacteria, following the title of John Postgate’s pop-bacteriology book (solely to be used as jumping board to the bacterial universe as it completely ignores the splendid bacterial organisation of biofilms) crowd the ‘outer reaches of life’. This introduction written by an eminent English bacteriologist gives many, nearly epic, examples of the capability of bacteria to sustain and prosper in laboratory conditions meant to kill it. In the bacterial domain contamination is a feature not a ... bug. What bacteria do best is to come up with novel (and often bewildering) solutions to problems threatening their continued existence. In doing so they have evolved mechanisms to flourish where nothing else can. It is this capability of bacteria that allows bio-engineers to successfully create situations in which bacteria are evolved to eat manmade toxics otherwise indestructible. We need to learn bacteria such new tricks, we need to culture the microbes, if we don’t want to drown in the wastes of our stupidity.

In many cases the need for certain novelties in bacteria is beyond our understanding. For instance in the case of magnetotactic bacteria that orientate themselves along the earth’s magnetic core. This particular example also serves as example of the fact that, because of their size, there exists a thin line between physical and biological explanations of bacterial behaviour. By possessing very simple sensors/actuators (chemotaxis, phototaxis, etc) bacteria like E. coli their advantage in finding suitable environmental conditions is only slightly above random drift. This simplicity however is what allows them to quickly spawn wildtypes to try certain gimmicks of survival. Which is to say that of all biological life bacteria are the least conservative.

We are to dismissive in our selection-criteria of what constitutes creativity. When identifying some work of art as possessing true creativity coupled with sufficient technical mastery in execution we feel it has to be preserved forever. This is the message museums have carved on their walls: great art is eternal. But a new bacteria is always a new beginning and it is therein that lies its beauty. Once you accept that art can be in the process and not in the result. Once you agree that the defining quality of this process it its talent to find novel forms of itself, in response to abruptly changing environmental conditions, for the process to propagate. Once you take that for granted you are suitably prepared to consider the suggestion that art should become a form of biology. Once all this sounds like perfect common-sense you have reached the satori in which the BacterioPoetics powers of the E. coli can be revealed to you.



At 12:23 AM, Blogger St Anthony said...

E.coli, the creation of evolution, nature or God ... 'Ulysses' the creation of a unique, singular, rather magnificent human being.
I'm with the human on this one.
The function of creativity, (real creativity, not market forces) is to explain humanity to itself - without waxing sentimental.
Students of literature? Well, hermeneutics exist to aid and guide, to suggest, not to other prescriptive readings.
Even such arch-pessimists as Nietzsche and Schopenauer thought aesthetic production the noblest of human callings ... a dance across the abyss, you might say.

At 6:25 AM, Blogger socialfiction said...

god has nothing to do with it.

don't agree with your cultural explanation of creativity. but to qoute from Lynn Margulis, bacteria are us and the distinction between you and the bacteria is artificial:

"WE would have to accept that BACTERIA, touted to be our enemies, ARE not merely neutral or friendly but that they ARE us. They ARE direct ancestors of our most sensitive body parts. Our culture's terminology about BACTERIA is that of warfARE: they ARE germs to be destroyed and forever vanquished, BACTERIAl enemies make toxins that poison us. WE load our soaps with antiBACTERIAls that kill on contact, stomach ulcers ARE now agreed to be caused by BACTERIAl infection. Even if some admit the existence of "good" BACTERIA in soil or probiotic food like yogurt few of us tolerate the dangerous notion that human sperm tails and sensitive cells of nasal passages lined with waving cilia, ARE former BACTERIA. If this dangerous idea becomes widespread it follows that WE humans must agree that even before our evolution as animals WE have hated and tried to kill our own ancestors. Again, WE have seen the enemy, indeed, and, as usual, it is us. Social interactions of sensitive BACTERIA, then, not God, made us who WEre ARE today."



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