I am writing this post because myxobacteria are awesome, and I think more people should know about them.
You could go through your entire life without ever hearing about myxobacteria. Pretty much everything you need to know about microorganisms in general is that there are things moving around that are so small you can’t see them, sometimes they can help with things like digestion and pollution cleanup, and sometimes they can cause diseases such as salmonella, so you should really make sure to wash your hands, cook your food and pasteurize things.
Everything beyond that is a detail that you can probably overlook without any serious repercussions.
But what’s the fun in that?
As with just about any facet of science, if you look into microbiology you soon find yourself falling through a magnificent and intimidating rabbit hole of information. It helps to have a specific thing to latch on to to make sense of everything.
Even focusing on myxobacteria gives you a lot to take in though. The picture above shows how they move around in swarms or wolf packs. The colors indicate the direction each cell is moving in. For instance, all the cells that are colored orange are traveling to the right. Why do they do this? How do they do this? They don’t have any flagella or cilia (not in the classic sense anyway) They release slime,( myxobacteria comes from the greek myxo for slime after all), but how does that help? I’ll say more about myxo movement in a later post, but there’s more.When food is scarce, myxobacteria start lumping together in visible fruiting bodies, about a millimeter tall, like in the picture on the right. These fruiting bodies will eventually release bacterial cells with thicker cell walls that act as spores, eventually budding and making more myxobacteria, which then repeat the process.
Well, okay, that’s your basic fungus, right? But the weird thing here is that these are all still bacteria. They don’t even have nuclei! How do they show such complicated behavior? How do they know enough to organize themselves into a heap to release spores? How is it that the spore cells look so different from the other cells?
Scientists know the answers to many of these questions, but others are still still a mystery. As you go through some of the explanations, you start to notice these strange correlations between how bacteria sense things and how social networks and mobs of people form and behave. You start to wonder about how some professions get more specialized and whether businesses and franchises are fruiting bodies. It’s eerie. And if these dumb bacteria act this way, is it possible that we act in similar ways because we’re in a similar environment? What can we take from that? Are we too much like bacteria, or not enough? What does this say about free will?
Like I said, Myxobacteria are awesome.