Viruses are often seen as the evil bad guys, trying to thwart life at every turn – and covid hasn’t helped that image. The name ‘virus’ even comes from the Latin vīrus referring to poison and other noxious liquids. In reality however viruses actually do a lot for us and our world and despite being often defined as ‘disease-causing agents’ (as bacteria first were).
One example is the Cucumber Mosaic Virus, which infects lots of plants (not just cucumbers confusingly), stunting their growth – however it also makes them far more attractive to pollinators, increasing their chancing of fruiting. This creates lots of smaller plants with more fruits, meaning more food with less land & water used. This is only one example of how viruses aren’t all bad and how many are even helpful to their hosts and to humans!
Fungi aren’t just the stuff that rots our food, causes disease and grows in our uni houses (well in mine at least). Fungi are crucial to us and our world: recycling the dead into nutrients so that plants can grow; allowing us to brew beer and rise bread; giving us our first antibiotics, including penicillin (made by sensibly named Penicillium fungi) and a whole host of other medicines; providing natural pesticides, protecting our crops. Maybe most amazingly, fungi form a network made up of trillions of miles of small white hair-like fungi, called Mycorrhiza, that link to the roots of most plants. This network provides most of the world’s grasses and trees with crucial nutrients and minerals in return for food, in a super symbiosis known as the wood wide web. It may even allow trees and plants to communicate – another post coming soon.
There is a another amazing fungal talent that scientists have found, that may bring down the price of our weekly shops. Yeast are single celled fungal microorganisms that eat sugars, converting them to alcohol. Nectar in flowers is a sugary soup which is a bonanza for yeast. The only problem is the feast is boom and bust, as the flowers don’t last long, dooming the yeast to a slow death if they don’t get out (which is hard seeing their singled celled and cant move*). One species of yeast, Metschnikowia Reukaufii, has been shown to attract bees, enabling it to hitch a ride from one flower to the next, helping the flower sexually reproduce. More pollination => more reproduction => more fruit => more food!
How microbes make plants sexy – and why it helps us be more sustainable
Scientists don’t fully understand why the Mosaic Virus or Metschnikowia yeast make plants sexy. Currently scientists think that the infections do this to increase the spread of the easier-infected plants throughout the population, breeding more suitable victims that it can infect. Their also not sure how they attract pollinators either actually, it could be the yeast releases an attractive chemical, or just doesn’t release unpleasant ones (like other yeast). We simply don’t know, It’s worth finding out though, because by understanding the infections that enhance pollination scientists hope to one day use modified yeast and viruses to get bees to target crops and plants that we want to pollinate – improving crop yields and bringing down fruit and veg prices for everyone.
Could a bacteria stop the side effects of cancer treatment?
Clostridium sporogenes is a soil bacteria which could in the future be used to deliver toxic cancer drugs only to the cancerous tumour, rather than the whole body, reducing their crippling side effects. In nature, the bacteria is only found in soil with no oxygen – which is why they are so useful. Solid tumors (which cause cancers such as breast, brain and prostate) don’t contain oxygen (unlike every other tissue in the human body), so the microbes can only survive there when injected into the human body, where they multiply. In the near future scientists hope to genetically engineer them to carry cancer drugs, making them perfect delivery system. These soil-living superheroes could make the side effects of treatment a thing of past . Other magnetic soil bacteria may also provide targets drug treatments. As magnetic bacteria can already swim (with their flagella) and have magnets inside them, the plan is to direct them towards the target cells using a controlled magnetic fields. Imagine in the future finding a lump – and instead of facing the anxiety and spectre of death – simply taking a pill, sticking some magnetic plasters to the area and having the tumour melt away, causing no damage or side effects to the rest of the body.
The Future of Food, Medicine and the Planet
A new interest in the miracles that are microbes, new ever-cheaper genetic tests and the power of CRISPR to tinker with simple life has allowed microbiologists to begin to identify, catalogue and utilise microbes in ever more ways. Microbes from soils and the ocean are already used in combating rising antibiotic resistance and many more are yet to be found – whilst food production is one of the biggest areas of potential. From more sustainable traditional farming to even “Farmfree foods” – aka food grown from microbes in great vats (think quorn) will allow us to hand back vast areas of land and sea to nature, permitting re-wilding and carbon drawdown on a massive scale. Whilst carbs and protein grown in vats may not be the tagline the advertisers go with – the microbial food revolution has a lot going for it – giving us the power to end exploitation of animals for meat, an end to deforestation for land and a end in the use of pesticides, plastic fields and fertiliser.
First though we have to find these microbes in the wild – in a world where species are ever-less diverse and abundant. The challenge then is a race to find the microbes that can heal us and our planet before we kill them. This challenge is not easy given that less that a fraction of 0.1% of all microbe species that are thought to exist have likely been found. As eighty percent of the oceans remain unexplored, let alone surveyed for microbes – it is likely the untapped biological resources present in oceans may be fundamental in solving several of the world’s environmental and public health crises, which span from the rise of antibiotic resistance in bacteria and viral infection outbreaks; to feeding the world and saving wild spaces.
*Yeast can move about, but seeing they are so small a cm would seem more like a mile to these microbes.