Where Would We Be Without Bacteria?

Recently published research papers shed a lot of new light on the role of bacteria in human life, in the very beginning and at the cutting edge of modern bioengineering.

We’ve been over the “bad” and the “ugly.” So is there anything “good” about bacteria?

Indeed, there is. In fact, it may be the very stuff of life itself.

Not only that — and obviously, that’s a pretty big deal — but we may be on the verge of being able to control bacteria via electronics and make them work for us inside sick humans.

We should probably come to vigilance against “superbugs,” antimicrobial resistance (AMR), and the sloppy practices that put millions — perhaps even billions — of lives in jeopardy.

At the same time, the world of single-cell microorganisms is complex and nuanced — bad and ugly but good as well…like life itself.

We’ve been over the “bad” and the “ugly.” So is there anything “good” about bacteria?

In a paper published January 13, 2017, in the journal Science, a team of researchers “observed the assembly of a nucleus-like structure in bacteria during viral infection.”

What that means, as Sarah Maddocks, a lecturer in microbiology at Cardiff Metropolitan University, explains for The Conversation, is this:

When a virus infects a living cell, it hijacks and reprograms the cell to turn it into a virus-producing factory. Now scientists at the University of California have for the first time discovered just how extensive that reprogramming can be, effectively turning bacterial cells into animal or plant-like cells. This might even be how the cells of more complex organisms evolved in the first place.

They discovered that the different viral proteins assembled inside the bacterial cell into functional machinery that looked and behaved a lot like the nucleus of a human cell. This nucleus-like structure was positioned at the center of the cell by long, tube-like protein fibres, just like the proteins responsible for positioning a human-cell nucleus.

So a virus did what it does today to all of us at one time or another, in forms as simple as the common cold and as confounding as the superbug that recently killed a woman in Nevada: It invaded a host cell and took control of the situation.

The critical act in this invasion is the creation of “a compartment that separated viral DNA from the cytoplasm” to allow replication. This “is a key feature of the cell nucleus.”

So single-cell microorganisms — or prokaryotes, or bacteria — “evolve” into higher-life-form multicellular organisms containing nuclei.

“The results of this study,” writes Maddocks, “could be pivotal for understanding how life evolved from relatively simple organisms into the complex and diverse life-forms that inhabit our planet today.”

That’s our beginning.

Here’s how far we’ve come, according to a paper published January 17, 2017, in the journal Nature Communications:

The ability to interconvert information between electronic and ionic modalities has transformed our ability to record and actuate biological function. Synthetic biology offers the potential to expand communication “bandwidth” by using biomolecules and providing electrochemical access to redox-based cell signals and behaviors. While engineered cells have transmitted molecular information to electronic devices, the potential for bidirectional communication stands largely untapped. Here we present a simple electrogenetic device that uses redox biomolecules to carry electronic information to engineered bacterial cells in order to control transcription from a simple synthetic gene circuit.

This, in short, describes how we’ll “connect engineered organisms to electronics, so we can make living components for devices,” as Sam Wong explains for New Scientist.

The research team, led by William Bentley, an engineer and founding director of the Fischell Institute for Biomedical Devices in the A. James Clark School of Engineering at the University of Maryland, showed that “bacteria can be engineered” using electrical input in a way that will allow us to “switch on any genes researchers want to target.”

“The results of this study,” writes Maddocks, “could be pivotal for understanding how life evolved from relatively simple organisms into the complex and diverse life-forms that inhabit our planet today.”

“One application,” writes Wong, “could be in biosensors using engineered bacteria that detect certain chemicals. For example, bacteria could be programmed to identify a particular infection and respond by fluorescing.”

Bacteria are everything, Clint Eastwood, Lee van Cleef, and Eli Wallach all wrapped up on one fascinating package: the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Upticks, Downticks

Downtick The Russell 2000 Index shed 1.2% during the four trading sessions last week, finishing in the red on Tuesday and Thursday but eking out modest gains on Wednesday and Friday. The primary small-cap stock benchmark is now down 0.2% so far in 2017.

Uptick The Chicago Board Options Exchange Volatility Index surged by 8.9% last week, from 11.23 as of the close of trading on Friday, January 13, to 12.23 as of the close of trading on Friday, January 20. The “fear gauge” remains in historically low territory.

Downtick The Trump Bounce seems to have petered out. The S&P 500 index posted a 7.2% rally off the intraday low on November 9, the first trading session following Hillary Clinton’s concession, through December 13, when the most widely followed equity benchmark hit an intraday transition-period high. Since then, it’s basically flat to slightly negative.

Uptick The Federal Reserve reported January 18 that industrial production — output at factories, mines, and utilities — grew by 0.8% in December 2016, the biggest increase since November 2014. Economists surveyed by The Wall Street Journal expected a 0.7% rise.

Downtick The U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics reported January 19 that seasonally adjusted initial claims for unemployment insurance declined by 15,000 from the prior week’s revised figure to 234,000, below a consensus forecast of 252,000. The four-week moving average declined by 10,250, to 246,750, the lowest level since the week ending November 3, 1973.

Uptick According to Corbin Perception’s quarterly Inside The Buy-side report, 85% of investors who responded to its survey expect fourth-quarter 2016 earnings results will meet or exceed the consensus forecast, up from 78% for third-quarter 2016 reporting season. “Expectations for improving organic growth surpasses worsening for the first time in more than a year,” the investor research and investor relations advisory firm notes, while “67% of investors report feeling better about the U.S economy post-election.”

Downtick Peter Schiff of Euro Pacific Capital: “There is much we don’t know about how the Trump presidency will play out. Will the Wall get built? Who will pay for it? Will it have at least some fencing? Will repeal and replace happen at exactly the same time? Will Trump throw a ceremonial switch? Will there be a Trump National Golf Course in Sochi? It’s anyone’s guess. But of one thing we can be fairly certain. President Trump is very likely to preside over the largest expansion of federal budget deficits in our history.”

Uptick The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported January 18 that the consumer price index rose by 0.3% in December 2016, pulled higher by energy prices. The year-over-year rate was up 0.4%, to 2.1%, continuing an uptrend that started in July. That was also the biggest 12-month increase since the reported period ending July 2014. “Core” CPI, which excludes food and energy, was up 0.2% in December. Year-over-year core CPI measured 2.2%.

Downtick William Onyeabor, a pioneer of African electro-funk and a business leader known as “the Chief” in his hometown of Enugu, Nigeria, passed away last week at 70. A truly humble genius of great humor who operated on multiple levels, Onyeabor was also a mythic figure. Boing Boing and Luaka Bop have more on an extraordinary man.

Uptick Morgan Housel participated in a dinner/chat with behavioral psychologist Daniel Kahneman, who specializes in judgment and decision-making. Check out Morgan’s summary of “A Chat With Daniel Kahneman.”

Smart Investing,

David Dittman
Editorial Director, Wall Street Daily

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