Microbes May Be Humanity’s Last Hope

A conversation with Ted Anton, author of 'Planet of Microbes.'

Around us, beneath us, and even inside us, microscopic organisms execute remarkable feats of strength. They eat toxic waste for breakfast. They swap genes and hop between host species, even thriving in extreme environments. For billions of years, they have survived environmental catastrophes that have driven far larger creatures to extinction. One could say that microbes are more expert Earthlings than we delicate Homo sapiens will ever be. As the human race continues to wreak havoc with our planet, these extraordinary microorganisms may wield the power to save us from ourselves.

In Planet of Microbes: The Perils and Potential of Earth’s Essential Life Forms, science writer Ted Anton takes us on a three-part journey that begins with scientific discoveries revealing the microbial origins of life on Earth. Anton, a professor of English at DePaul University, also takes us through microbes’ surprising and often paradoxical relationship to health with respect to our bodies, and even our minds. And in the final leg of the journey, he examines microbes’ role in Earth’s environment, where to look for microbiological life in space, and exciting possibilities for microbe-based renewable energy and waste remediation.

I spoke with Anton on his book, the inspiration for which struck when he interviewed biologists at the scientific frontier for an earlier work, Bold Science: Seven Scientists Who Are Changing Our World. Examining the groundbreaking work of scientists like Craig Venter of the Human Genome Project and evolutionary biologist Carl Woese made it clear that microbes were worthy of a book of their own.

Devi Bhaduri

You discuss research that gives us a glimpse into “LUCA” — the last universal common ancestor of all current Earth life. Many of us were taught microbes were the first life forms to colonize Earth, but there is something more profound to the idea that all life currently on the planet shared one ancestor — that we share a connectedness. Was there an ancestor or modern “cousin” in particular that you found compelling?

Ted Anton

Yes, [LUCA] is a wild idea. I do find the identification of LUCA’s core genes in a microbe near the ocean hot vents to be particularly profound. The hot vents have the surplus of energy that seems necessary to animate inorganic material. LUCA seems closely related to the disease-causing microbe, Clostridia (the class of bacteria that cause botulism and tetanus). It’s mind-boggling.

Devi Bhaduri

The rise of biohacking, or do-it-yourself genetic manipulation, has made it possible for anyone to do genetic experiments in their home kitchens and basements. Do you think this will catch on and potentially help raise the science literacy rates in America?

Ted Anton

Yes. It’s always so much more exciting to play on your own with a technology than to be taught how to use it. We live in a fascinating time of microbrewing, micro-fermenting, and DIY synthetic garage biology. I love to do the cheek swab experiment and precipitate my DNA from saliva. On the other hand, it is really scary to think of the danger of bioterror, where viruses and pathogens could be hacked and released in a subway or airport terminal.

Devi Bhaduri

You mention the spread of potentially harmful misinformation on how microbes affect disease. For example, Dr. Mehmet Oz once said that probiotics could prevent dementia. Do you recommend any particular sources of information for the public to rely upon when trying to figure out if a health claim like this is true?

Ted Anton

I recommend and anything from the Cochrane Collaboration. They will evaluate those claims. Both are very reliable! Also, the Centers for Disease Control.

Devi Bhaduri

You describe NASA’s studies of the surface of Mars with various landers and rovers. There is much scientific and public curiosity about whether there is or ever was life on Mars. So far, the tests that would indicate the presence of life have yielded results that were mixed, and therefore inconclusive, but interesting. As you conducted your research, what mission stood out as the closest to finding evidence of life in space?

Ted Anton

Right now it’s rather a case of potential sites of life in space, and the most enticing to me are the Cassini findings of liquid water plumes and volcanic activity on Saturn’s moon Enceladus. The amino acids on comets are exciting, as is the liquid water on Mars.  Mars life would likely be underground microbial life, due to the surface radiation.

Devi Bhaduri

As we humans cause more damage to our own environment via pollution and climate change, do you think that microbes could end up saving us from ourselves?

Ted Anton

Yes, definitely. They could help us clean up oil spills [more effectively], and convert industrial and agricultural waste into energy. They could provide new treatments for resistant diseases. They might help us with the problems of depression and obesity. They have lived off toxic waste for billions of years. Perhaps they can assist with the problem of global warming.

We live in the age of the microbe!

Devi Bhaduri

What’s next for you?

Ted Anton

I’m working on a fictional novel based on the microbe discoveries, called Star Drive. There is also potential for a documentary based on my first book, Eros, Magic and the Murder of Professor Culianu.

Planet of Microbes by Ted Anton
University of Chicago Press
Published October 31, 2017

Ted Anton is professor of English at DePaul University. He is the author of four science books and has written for Chicago magazine, the Chicago Tribune, and Publishers Weekly.

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3 comments on “Microbes May Be Humanity’s Last Hope

  1. Brian Geiger

    Fascinating interview! I’ll have to add this book to my (ever-growing) list

    Liked by 1 person

  2. tyna writes

    Love to read this book. I read about microbes in another book I read (Super Genes) and I find it interesting. And I want to know more about it.👌


  3. That’s a really nice interview…


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