Parallel Universe of Microbial "Dark Matter" Revealed
As scientists continue to find incredible diversity in the smallest of organisms, realizations of all we’ve been missing are changing conceptions of life.
Microbes: they live in and on us, and all around us – in the soil, in the air, and deep in the earth and seas. “How many microbes are hiding among us?” Science Magazine asks. It’s been hard to know, because most cannot be cultured in the lab. New sequencing technologies are starting to shed light on the “dark matter” of the living world, as EurekAlert termed it in a Department of Energy press release reprinted by Astrobiology Magazine. Eddy Rubin, leading a discovery initiative for the DOE, likens it to a new Lewis and Clark Expedition into unexplored territory.
“Microbes are the most abundant and diverse forms of life on Earth,” said Tanja Woyke, DOE JGI Microbial Program Head and senior author on the Nature publication. “They occupy every conceivable environmental niche from the extreme depths of the oceans to the driest of deserts. However, our knowledge about their habits and potential benefits has been hindered by the fact that the vast majority of these have not yet been cultivated in the laboratory. So we have only recently become aware of their roles in various ecosystems through cultivation-independent methods, such as metagenomics and single-cell genomics. What we are now discovering are unexpected metabolic features that extend our understanding of biology and challenge established boundaries between the domains of life.”
One of the boundaries being challenged is the distinction between viruses and microbes. When you find a virus so large it contains more genetic material than some eukaryotes, how do you classify it? Elizabeth Pennisi writes for Science Magazine,
“It’s like finding a sasquatch,” says Elodie Ghedin, a virologist at the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania. That’s one of the amazed reactions to the discovery, reported on page 281, of two new viruses with by far the largest genomes ever seen in a virus, including one that’s bigger than the genomes of some parasitic eukaryotes. The virologists in France who unearthed the massive viruses—the biggest one is 1 micron long, a hundred times the size of many viruses—suggest that their finds challenge the longstanding view that viruses don’t qualify as life.
“It is clear that the paradigm that viruses have small genomes and are relatively simple in comparison to cellular life has been overturned,” says Curtis Suttle, a virologist at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. The genome of one of the viruses is 1.91 million DNA bases long, while the other runs 2.47 million bases. That dwarfs some bacterial genomes and edges into the eukaryotic realm….
This means that the division of life into archaea, bacteria and eukaryotes may be up for revision again. Efforts to sequence genomes of unknown microbes so far have only been a drop in the bucket, there’s so much more out there to discover.
Another thing this means is that our planet is awash in coded genetic information. From the bottom of the sea to the edge of space, Planet Earth is the information planet! No other place we know has instructional code to build organisms that function with respiration, digestion, reproduction and all the other functional systems that separate life from nonlife, but Earth has it in super-abundance.
Creationists and intelligent design advocates would expect our Privileged Planet to be the Information Planet – and so it is. Functional information, possessing purpose, complexity, and integration, does not emerge from rocks. It is the organization of the raw materials into information that sets it apart from everything else we know in the universe. Creationists would also expect the information to be organized into a system with hierarchical organization, networks and functional interactions from the micro to the planetary scale – and so that is, too. The information in viruses is part of that system. Most viruses are beneficial; the few that are “virulent” are products of the curse due to sin, Biblical creationists believe.
Ariel Anbar might try to make “the case for alien life” (Arizona State press release) but it is illogical to extrapolate a position from one instance. “Is life a universal phenomenon, a planetary process just like plate tectonics?” Anbar asks. “Or is life some weird statistical fluke?” That’s a false dichotomy. From our universal experience with intelligent causes, we can deduce – whether alien life is discovered or not – that life is the product of an intelligent cause. From other signposts we can narrow down the nature and identity of that Cause. Hint: it is not a blind, aimless process of natural selection. Follow the evidence where it leads, instead of the imagination of Creator-deniers.