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Why bacteria are beautiful, and why we need them

by Angela Herring

For every one of the 7 bil­lion people on Earth, up to 10 times that many bac­teria have taken up res­i­dence in and on them. “We pro­vide a nice home for them,” said Nobel Lau­reate Sir Richard Roberts, who was recently appointed Dis­tin­guished Uni­ver­sity Pro­fessor in North­eastern University’s Col­lege of Sci­ence.

How­ever, Roberts said many people are unaware of this impor­tant ecosystem. “Most people think of bac­teria as rather nasty objects you want to stay away from. People are busy washing their hands all the time and putting hand san­i­tizers on. But this is all very bad,” Roberts said. “Bac­teria are our friends.” He added, “If you remove all the bac­teria crawling around your skin … you wouldn’t sur­vive very long at all.”

On Monday after­noon, Roberts deliv­ered his lec­ture titled “Why I love bac­teria,” describing not only why bac­teria are impor­tant to sus­tain human life but also how they are so aes­thet­i­cally pleasant. The sev­eral hun­dred tril­lion micro­scopic indi­vid­uals helping to keep each of us alive and healthy, Roberts said, only scratches the sur­face of the extreme bio­di­ver­sity encap­su­lated in the planet’s entire bac­te­rial pop­u­la­tion. In fact, he noted that if you added up all the planet’s bac­teria, the total would sig­nif­i­cantly out­weigh the organ­isms we can actu­ally see.

“Bac­teria are very beau­tiful, but you don’t see them unless you have a micro­scope,” said Roberts, who received the Nobel Prize in phys­i­ology or med­i­cine for his dis­covery of split genes in 1993. “That may be why we’ve become wary of them,” he said.

The event not only wel­comed Roberts to North­eastern but also cel­e­brate Northeastern’s part­ner­ship with the Ocean Genome Legacy, a pub­licly acces­sible biorepos­i­tory of some of the ocean’s strangest and most rare species.

Roberts’ lec­ture took the audience—including those at the standing-​​room only Curry Stu­dent Center and others watching online—on a journey of beau­tiful bac­teria from the depths of Earth’s oceans to the planet Mars. He intro­duced us to spiral shaped bac­teria that move through the water like dancers and to aquaspir­illum, which invented its own internal micro­scope bil­lions of years before humans were even around.

President Aoun and Chairman of Ocean Genome Legacy (OGL) Sir Richard Roberts talk about Roberts' talk titled, "Why I Love Bacteria."

President Aoun and Chairman of Ocean Genome Legacy (OGL) Sir Richard Roberts talk about Roberts’ talk titled, “Why I Love Bacteria.”

He pointed out sev­eral bac­te­rial species that are com­monly asso­ci­ated with disease—rickettsia causes typhus, tre­ponema den­ti­cola causes peri­odontal dis­ease, and heli­co­bater pylori causes ulcers and some can­cers, though it also seems to pre­vent asthma.

What’s more, the world’s oceans rep­re­sent as much of a trea­sure trove of undis­cov­ered micro­bial species as the human body, housing as much bac­te­rial bio­mass as 50 mil­lion blue whales.

In both cases, Roberts said, the key to learning from them is to decode their com­plex DNA sequences. “As we get better and better at being able to read DNA and knowing what the poten­tial for any given organism is, so it will be easier for us to make a very good pre­dic­tion about how an organism will behave on the basis of its DNA sequence,” he explained.

In part to sup­port that effort, Roberts is the chairman of the board of Ocean Genome Legacy, also known as the OGL. Founded in 2001 by Dr. Donald Comb, the non­profit envi­ron­mental research orga­ni­za­tion and DNA bank was estab­lished to cap­ture valu­able DNA sam­ples from bac­teria and other organ­isms around the globe as insur­ance against extinction—and to serve as an impor­tant tool for research and his­tor­ical record.

“There are so many species dis­ap­pearing from our oceans at the most incred­ible rate,” Roberts said. “We prob­ably can’t save the species per se, but if we have sam­ples of the DNA, which we can then sequence at some point, we do at least know what the genes were, what these organ­isms were capable of.”

Last year, the Ocean Genome Legacy found a new home at Northeastern’s Marine Sci­ence Center. Pres­i­dent Joseph E. Aoun, who led a Q-​​and-​​A ses­sion fol­lowing Roberts’ lec­ture, hailed the partnership.

“We’re very happy to have you here,” Aoun said. “Let’s work together to reach the goals you have out­lined.” He also intro­duced a new video unveiled to the audi­ence that high­lights this part­ner­ship and the unprece­dented wealth of knowl­edge the OGL pro­vides North­eastern research fac­ulty and stu­dents, and researchers around the world.

Since his days at Cold­spring Harbor Lab­o­ra­tory working with DNA-​​co-​​discoverer James Watson, Roberts has opted for a less-​​mainstream approach to research. He helped estab­lish New Eng­land Bio­labs, the com­pany founded by Comb that launched the OGL, to pro­vide a prof­itable ser­vice to sci­en­tists in an effort to fund his own and his col­leagues’ research.

“What you’re doing is living a very dif­ferent model,” Aoun said. Indeed the part­ner­ship between the two orga­ni­za­tions is itself an exten­sion of that unique model.

Originally published in news@Northeastern on March 25, 2014.

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