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Why Germs Are Better Environmentalists Than You

While we only recycle a quarter of our human-made waste, germs recycle almost everything cellular. This week, a group of researchers from different corners of the globe discovered that bacteria can even recycle genetic material (DNA), making them the ultimate environmental champions.

Some fifty years ago, the environmental movement began in the hopes of improving the balance between a rapidly growing society and nature. One of the pinnacle moments came in 1970 with both a saying and a logo representing the tenets of environmental sustainability better known as the 3Rs: reduce, reuse, and most importantly, recycle. As a result of these efforts, we are now living in a world in which landfills are growing at a much slower pace, reutilization of materials is commonplace and many of the items we use in our daily activities are made up of recycled materials.

Yet, despite all of the successes, we are no match for germs. Thanks to the germ code, not only are microbes wizards of the 3Rs but they also have learned how to use these actions in their relationship with us to make us their home as well as cause certain diseases.

In the human context, REDUCE is the goal to minimize energy consumption, or as it is better known today, the carbon footprint. This could mean making changes in industry to reduce the level of harmful emissions or simply using less at the consumer level to minimize the amount of waste. Microbes also need to incorporate reductions in carbon use to avoid depleting resources and starving themselves to death.

Viruses in particular have learned how to accomplish this with great success. Their actions, however, are quite different from ours. Instead of simply using less and surviving, many viruses give up their usual home and find shelter inside our genetic material. This phenomenon, known as the provirus stage, allows the virus to remain alive during bad times until more resources become available when they begin to produce more viruses and continue survival. The practice has been so extensive that up to 8% of our human genome is actually made up of some 600 different types of viruses. While this practice of using less has had little impact on our health, the "green" actions of viruses such as HIV and HPV have led to significant problems such as AIDS and cancer.

In the human world, REUSE has been promoted as the idea of moving away from single-use items, such as switching from plastic shopping bags to more environmentally friendly cloth bags. The world has become fixated over the years with finding ways to eschew disposable items and find materials that can be used over and over again. In the microbial world, this action is also used extensively by a number of microbes. However, instead of bags, utensils and containers, they find ways to reuse cellular components, such as proteins, sugars, salts and fats to stay happy and environmentally friendly.

One of the most fascinating examples of reuse is Listeria monocytogenes. Better known for causing outbreaks including one in 2008 that killed 21 people, Listeria has been a bacterium of interest to researchers for years. Unlike most bacteria, which need to produce their own home from scratch in a disposable manner, Listeria are able to enter the cells of the host and reuse many of the components inside. When the bacterium enters the cell, it immediately starts to reuse all of these elements. The bacteria then seek out other cells rich in these components and continue to grow. While this happens regularly albeit at low levels in the gut, it all goes wrong when Listeria starts to reuse materials in cells that we need to stay healthy. Normally, this is remediated by the immune system but for those who have compromised immunities, severe illness can result and unfortunately for a few hundred people per year, death.

Perhaps the most common of the 3Rs attributed to germs is RECYCLE. While we only recycle a quarter of our human-made waste, germs are known to be able to recycle almost everything cellular. The only piece of a cell that wasn't considered to be recyclable was the genetic material, the DNA. Yet this week, a group of researchers from different corners of the globe discovered that bacteria can indeed recycle genetic material and ultimately prove themselves to be champions.

The experiments were fairly simple. They took waste DNA from a number of different sources, including a 43,000 year old woolly mammoth bone, and fed it to a soil bacterium, Acinetobacter baylyi. They then tested to see whether the DNA was first taken into the cell and if so, how it was used. They had expected that the bacterium would get a taste of the waste and then spit it out. Yet something completely different happened. The DNA from all sources, even the woolly mammoth, were given a home and then, after some time, a function. This phenomenon was so unexpected that they had to give it a name that reflects the finding. Sadly, instead of "recycling of the ancients," they chose the jargon-sounding term, "anachronistic evolution."

The finding is astonishing in one way but also raises caution for those trying to wage war on germs. With this newly discovered ability to recycle, germs have yet another method to evolve and beat human weaponry such as antibiotics and disinfectants.The authors state that in a world where resistance is growing in all areas of the world, this phenomenon will hinder us even further.

When it comes to the 3Rs, we may feel that our actions are noteworthy. Yet, the mastery of germs shows us how far we have to go before we can truly claim to be environmentally friendly. Although we may never be able to fully incorporate the examples of HIV, Listeria or Acinetobacter baylyi into our everyday activities, we can look to these microbes as models of good behaviour and strive to better our own efforts to keep our Earth sustainable.


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