Tuesday, October 6, 2015

HGT a model for humanity's survival ?

Incredibly small, usually immobile, fragile bags of mostly water : they hardly sounds like creatures capable of giving advanced human civilization, circa the 21st century, a vital formula for surviving the worst the Cosmos can throw at us.

But for almost four billion years, the supposedly 'stupid' and 'unfit' tiny microbes have not just survived but dominated life on Earth.

I follow people like Dr Martin Henry Dawson and *Dr Lois Almon who, way back before WWII, believed that much of the credit for this unlikely survival success lies in something that these small and the weak creatures have that we big and smart people do not have.

And that is a process we now call HGT, but which Dawson first established under the name of 'bacterial transformation'.

HGT stands for Horizontal Gene Transfers --- 'the genetics of inclusion'.

It usually involves the release of bits of an individual microbe's personal DNA genome into the environment, to be taken up potentially by any other type of microbe near by, who can then pass it on to other species of microbes who are both physically and genetically far more remote from the original individual microbe.

(By contrast, most big creatures can only have access to the DNA genome of their mother and father - not trillions times trillions of other individual microbe genomes.)

The net result is a vast global lending library of survival ideas, with the key concept that every single microbe is both a borrower and an author : "With help from all, there is hope for all".

"What's the Gen ?"

I have a weakness for WWII ER (enlisted ranks) slang and one of the best was the constant question at a time when rumours rather than hard facts dominated life.

ERs from all services generally greeted each other not with "how you doing?" but rather with an urgent "what's the Gen?".

North Americans today in peacetime might re-phrase it as "what's the scoop?", "what's the score?" or "what's the buzz?".

'Gen' was short for information that might be vital for survival, whether merely surviving the chickenshit of daily military life at the rear bases or surviving bad assignments out on the frontlines.

While we humans sometimes pass valuable "Gen" from person to person, microbes have always passed valuable "Genes" from one to another.

Over almost four billion years, microbes have excelled at producing endless numbers of seemingly 'unfit' and useless gene mutations and at allowing microbes with these oddball genes to survive and reproduce - albeit often at less than optimal population levels.

These genes, like all microbe genes, are routinely released into the environment, for all other microbes to potentially take up with HGT.

Most of the time, there is no point to either the mutated new genes or to their takeup by microbe species genetically far away from the species and strain that first produced them.

Antibiotic resistance is merely the best known example of HGT

But when a new crisis suddenly emerges anywhere in the world - say a new deadly antibiotic produced for the benefit of humanity - in only a handful of years all microbe populations around the world have taken up and then 'expressed' a hitherto obscure (but ancient) gene that offers sturdy resistance to this human antibiotic.

But the weird useless/unfit genes can vary all over the map - why bother with a gene that allows microbes to go into a suspended state of existence when the environment freezes over for thousands of years ?

But that turns out to be very useful when the Earth has become a frozen solid iceball, almost overnight, several times in its history.

And so on and so - no environmental crisis in four billion years (and there has been some real hellish ones) has yet succeeded in wiping the microbes out.

By contrast, evolutionary history suggests that big creatures, practising 'the genetics of exclusion', have had no luck surviving even a small environmental crisis.

We aren't going to survive the latest environmental crisis, not unless we give up the dogwhistle scientific politics of first giving everyone offering to help a blood test to find out if they are WASP enough to be taken seriously.

We need a global coalition of all possible talents, need to make the biggest of all possible Big tents, to get us through this crisis.

This blog is all about creating a human equivalent to microbial HGT...


*Dr Almon thought HGT might account for sudden variations in the nitrogen fixing abilities of bacteria and since almost all life would cease without these efforts, she thought it was well worth looking into.

As a blogger who loves his grub, I fully agree .


The days when we can afford to let the WASP males, perhaps 1% of the world's population, rule (and ruin) this planet are over.

The crisis we face is such way too big, way to existential.

And the WASPs are fading fast - it sometime seems easier to get two Pandas to breed than to get two WASPs to breed.

Instead  of relying exclusively upon their fading numbers, we need the biggest possible of Big Tents, a coalition of 'all the possible talents', 'all hands on deck', if we are to come up with the creative solutions we so desperately need.

What we don't need is blood tests at every frontier guard post to determine if a person is "Pure Laine" enough, Aryan enough, WASP enough, before being allowed in to make their case.

Good ideas that will let humanity survive for a few more thousand years can emerge just as well from under niqabs as those that leisurely filter out from the gated communities and exclusive country clubs.

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