The Bad Batch Of Microbes
A long, long, time ago in a galaxy far far away….farther than Courscent and longer ago than the Revenge Of The Sith there came a New Hope to the Clone Wars. An unexpected ragtag unit of mutant clones known as the Clone Force 99 saved the Republic from the Separatists with their “favorable traits” and comradery around being ‘different from the ‘regs’. Each enhanced clone had a different mutation from the other that was introduced by the Kaminoians, the species that mass-produced the clones, making the Bad Batch “more capable than an army” yet more unpredictable and disobedient than the original clones.
Last year, we talked about midichlorians, the tiny microbial friends that allow the Jedi to better be one with the force. We discussed how you can drink like a Skywalker even if you don’t have a Thala-siren at your local beach. And we divulged the secrets to Alderaanian Wine for which the Alderaanians would surely kill us if they were still alive, at least we are allowing the culture to live on. This year, we will highlight 5 microbes that have similar desirable traits to that of Clone Force 99. But first, let’s talk about mutations.
Mutations Occur All Across The Galaxy
The clones were supposed to be all genetically similar to the bounty hunter they were cloned from, Jengo Fett. But this is not about clonal clones, it's about those genetically modified for desirable traits. The truth is, mutations happen everywhere across the galaxy, in you, me, your dog, and every person you’ve seen today. M
utations happen in three main ways: there is substitution, indels (stands for insertion or deletion)and frameshifts. They are exactly how they sound. A substitution merely subsaitutes one letter for another. Indels may either del some DNA or innnnssseeeerrrttt some DNA into a sequence.
Insertions and deletions can cause what are known as frameshift mutations. DNA is read in words no bigger than three letters (small vocabulary I know). In a frameshift mutation, the mutation ends up altering how the words are read. For instance, if we have an indel (insertion or deletion) of one single letter of DNA this will shift the whole reading frame over. Suppose we have the DNA sequence OBI-WAN KEN OBI with a deletion at the first letter we get a frameshift BIW ANK ENO BI. A single letter frameshift in Princess Leia’s message would have destroyed the whole franchise!
We are nowhere near being able to clone a whole army to fight our wars, but we have found some bacteria that have “desirable traits” similar to that of Clone Force 99.
The “Hunter” Microbe: Magnetotactic Bacteria
Hunter was the leader of the Clone Force 99. His special mutation? Enhanced senses. He was able to feel the electromagnetic signals, giving him a reliable lay of the enemy's land and the ability to sense what’s coming. And like any good leader, he was also charged with keeping the peace in his squadron.
Some microbes have evolved a similar mutation to help sense their surroundings. Magnetotactic bacteria create their own “nano-compasses” that orient them to the Earth’s magnetic field. They even have specialized compartments called magnetosomes, whose sole purpose is to create these little compass particles. They can then use a hair-like appendage, called flagella, to ‘swim’ towards more desirable environments.
Researchers aren’t sure when these organelles first came about in bacteria or how many bacteria or archaea possess this desirable trait. Recent research by Wei Lin and colleagues dramatically extended our knowledge of these microbes by putting together 168 draft genomes of magnetotactic bacteria! This is three times the number of genomes we had before. They found magnetotactic bacteria in 13 different phyla! A Phyla is one of the highest rankings in taxonomy, so Yoda and Chewie might be in the same phylum as you are in the same phylum as your pet dog, cat, snake, or bird. Being found in so many taxonomically different phyla suggest that magnetoreception was a desirable trait microbes acquired early on in evolutionary time.
The “Wrecker” Microbes: Archaea
Wrecker has a mutation that makes him really strong and big. I mean he picked up a spaceship off of fellow clone trooper Cody! He is loud, brash, and always ready for a fight or an excuse to blow stuff up. But despite all this, Wrecker is not immortal. This can be seen in the wounds that scar his body. Even though he has wounds, he has shown to be able to adapt to the situation. If there was a microbe that encapsulates Wrecker, it is the extremophile group of Archaea.
Archaea are 1 of the 3 domains of life and were discovered, or reclassified, by Carl Woese in the 1970s. Species of this phyla thrive in some of the most extremes of this planet including temperatures well over the boiling point, extremely acidic or alkaline water, the digestive tract of many organisms, anaerobic conditions, and the desiccating environment of salt. There are even Archaea that survive the extreme cold, UV radiation, and can make organic material from inorganic chemicals.
So these microbes are impressively strong, resilient, and can’t seem to take no for an answer by existing in the wildest of areas.
The “Tech” Microbe: Mycorrhizae
Tech is the classic “brains character” of the squadron. His “desirable traits” include the ability to communicate in any language using his high-tech instruments. He also was skilled in decoding and decrypting files and knew his way around a computer beyond the did you try turning it-on-and-off-again tactic.
So what microbes do we have that are excellent communicators? That of course goes to the wonderful fungal group, Mycorrhizae. Mycorrhizae literally means “fungus-root” as it infiltrates the real roots of the plant and creates an elaborate network. This vast connection of intertwined fungal and plant ‘roots’ is called “the wood-wide web.” The plants barter carbon-rich sugars for necessary nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen that the fungus can get from their network. The fungal network is even thought to connect one plant to another. It's not just food they are communicating about, it's also water, alarms, emergency notifications, and even hormones! So, for their commitment to communication and their great intellect in managing and creating this vast network of good exchanges, we dub, Mycorrhizae the “Tech” of our Microbial Bad Batch squadron.
The “Echo” Microbe : Agrobacterium tumefaciens
If you watched The Clone Wars then you are more than aware of Echo, one of the fan favorite clone troopers. He started as part of the Domino Squad. Echo eventually joined the 501st under Anakin Skywalker and became a revered ARC trooper after the battle of Kamino. He, as an exemplary soldier, was brave, courageous, and showed ingenuity. Unfortunately, he died during the mission of the Separatists' prison, The Citadel... or so we thought. He was severely injured and was outfitted with cybernetic implants by the Techno Union and used, against his will, by the Separatists to figure out what the Republic was planning. He was eventually saved. After his experiences, he knew he was no longer a typical clone and joined up with the rest of The Bad Batch.
So you ask, what microbe best exemplifies Echo? Agrobacterium tumefaciens. This bacteria causes crown gall in plants, or tumors. It does this by inserting DNA into plant cells. This DNA, called transfer DNA or T DNA, changes the metabolism of the cell, causes the tumors to grow, and forces the plants to make a sugar that the bacteria specifically uses.
So how does this relate to Echo? Nowadays this bacteria is one of the greatest genetic tools we have in agriculture. The bacteria are genetically modified to have the gene the scientist wants to insert into the plant. The bacteria then insert this gene or genes into the plant and transforms it using its natural machinery. Just like Echo, it was modified, or changed, and is being used by someone, or a group of people, to change the plan of something else, whether it is an army or an organism.
The “Crosshair” Microbe: Bacteriophages
This brings us to our last Bad Batch Clone, Crosshair. With genetic mutations that give him eyesight off the charts, this clone feels right at home far from the battle, picking off enemies from behind his sniper scope. In fact, Hunter once said he could shoot targets from over 10 kilometers away!
Our microbe with the utmost precision, laser focus, and unmatched accuracy are Bacteriophages. Bacteriophages naturally prey on specific bacteria and are in a constant arms race with them. If antibiotics are the nukes we send in our guts to end a war against a specific disease, then phage therapy is the sniper cleverly picking off the war criminals while preserving the community structure and overall function of the rest of the area. These little guys don’t shoot from afar though, they are close combat fighters, a little fiery ball of proteins that injects or shoots a bacterial or viral cell and hijacks the machinery for its own use. Eventually, the host cell dies. This happens over and over and over again until the bad microbe is dead and the disease disappears. This is the principle of phage therapy.
Phage therapy is not an approved therapy at this time in the west. But there have been a few compassionate use cases of phage therapy. One such success story of phage therapy is the story of Isabelle Carnell-Holdaway, a 15-year-old who was born with cystic fibrosis, a nasty mucus disease that fills up your lungs. Cystic fibrosis is also accompanied by a bacterial infection. The doctors gave her less than a 1% chance of surviving, but Graham Hatfull and colleagues developed a three-phage cocktail for Isabelle, two of which were genetically modified to be more effective. In a few weeks, Isabelle’s began to get better. That was 3 years ago and from all accounts, Isabelle is still doing well today!
So there you have it 5 microbes that resemble the great Clone Force 99. Can you think of other microbes that could be in the Bad Batch of Microbes? Let us know in a comment below.