The Lives of a Cell (1974) is a collection of science journalism essays by Lewis Thomas, a book that had a profound effect on me. One of his essays in particular stayed with me. It was about the mythological beasts that we create, that persist like the unicorns that inhabit our grandaughter’s fabulous world.
I had been reading Thomas at an impressionable time while learning about the weird and wonderful creatures in the fossil record. I could see and handle the many natural casts and moulds of their hard parts in The Geology Department teaching and research collections. The first of these had been acquired in 1777 and the collection grew (and yet grows) and was (and is) maintained by Trinity in Dublin for students like me to have had access to it in 1977. Our building was and is called The Museum Building because of the collections.
Some of my palaeontology instructors weren’t above extracting 500 million year dead trilobites from rocks with a newly acquired set of dental tools. And at the same time, I was learning that lichens were not a plant but a symbiosis between bacteria and fungus. No hard parts to preserve in the fossil record and hidden in plain sight for millennia, what other ‘beasts’ had nature made that we’ll never meet? Very limited answers came from The Burgess Shale in Ontario, which was uncovered by Walcott in 1909. The amazingly unusual sediment flooding and preservation mechanisms even preserved soft tissued beasts such as 500 million year dead sponges.
Then there were the fabulous winged beasts from the Solnhofen Limestones. The show stopper was the 150 million year dead therapod dinosaur Archaeopteryx preserved in such stunning detail that no one could deny the presence of the feathers.
Now I know that the largest beast on the planet is a fungus. A Honey Fungus in the Blue Mountains in Oregon is 3.8 km wide. No hard parts will ever be preserved. Should we assume this is the biggest fungus ever?
I came to know of the Wood Wide Web in 2014 and you know what?; it made sense that all of the plants might be in communication through their relationships with fungi living in the soil that sustains them. That’s ‘wired’ as the mycellium, the thread-like vegetative part of the fungus you see when you turn over the soil near rotting wood. Another example of vital fungal symbiotic relationships. Sadly there aren’t any hard parts to preserve that could tell us about how this worked millions of years before now. You might conclude that fungi are really important, more important than you’d known before.
I learned in 2009 that there are species of mushroom that produce enzymes that break down the hydrocarbons found in oil. Some other fungi can soak up heavy metals like mercury. Then in 2015 I read that the Amazon Basin is home to a fungus that can digest polyurethane. Bioremediation using fungi has become a vital tool in our arsenal against pollution.
Around that same time, I got interested in septic shock because it didn’t kill me. And I learned that bacteria can produce chemical signals that other bacteria will respond to. This process is often called cell-cell signaling (I presume this is an American mobile phone joke?). So it came as no real surprise to learn that bacteria may be communicating distress signals in response to certain antibiotics. Be warned, bacteria may be able to adapt their behaviour to help tolerate antibiotics. Call it striking back after eons of use in fermentation processes like brewing, baking, and cheese and butter production. And of course, the second human brain is that assemblage of bacteria together with the archaea, eukaryotes, and viruses that inhabit our most intimate selves.
Amidst the palaeontological bias that comes from what is generally only hard evidence, the few rare softer parts and not enough plants, I wonder if bacteria and fungus have always had a big support role. Today, while they appear to be hiding in plain sight, are they waiting for us to ask them to help us save the planet from ourselves?
I wonder if they are not the most fabulous beasts of all.