New Interview with Marcia Stone, Science Journalist

After writing nature and wildlife articles at Suite 101 Marc Latham entered into an online conversation with Marcia Stone, a science journalist specialising in microbiology.

English: Three types of fossil microbes in the...

English: Three types of fossil microbes in the Archaean (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While Marc is most interested in saving furry iconic animals, Marcia is a journalist specialising in a world normally invisible to humans; one that is now being discovered in intricate detail through sequencing. 

Science not Philosophy 

Having previously compared ant life to human society [Marcia corrected: ‘ants were here first so human society should rightfully be compared to ant society, and all should be compared to biofilms where microbes learned to cooperate for the common good.’] Marc was fascinated by the complexity and cooperation apparently at work in life too small to be seen by the human world.

Marc thought there was all this intricate work going on, which was beyond humanity until recently, and eerily mirrors human society, [Marcia corrected: ‘wrong! human society mirrors microbial and insect society and why you think this is eerie is beyond me. It’s natural.’] so his main interest was in the information’s relevance to human society.

Marc asked Marcia if she’d be interviewed. Marcia agreed, but stressed that her work was pure science, and should be interpreted as such: ‘What I write about is straight science, no faith no philosophy involved. Those are completely other things. In order to understand microbes you have to open your mind and downsize your ego. They aren’t simple little programmed machines (the scientists at IBM are studying Escherichia coli to try and build more efficient and smaller computers – they’re more efficient than we are). And before bacteria, archaea and eukaryotic single cells there were ribocytes – wholly RNA cells who invented the genetic code.’

Interview with Marcia Stone, Science Journalist 

1.You seem to like bacteria. Do you think bacteria have a bad press?

Bacteria did have bad press for profit –selling anti-bacterial chemicals– but that’s changed significantly. Just look at the profit probiotics are making; yogurt and the like. People are loving bacteria these days.

2. Are human analogies (amoebas farming etc) accurate, or more a way to explain it to laypeople, and get them interested?

Everything I write is accurate; extensively fact checked by the researchers involved. I don’t generally write for lay people and expect those who read what I write to come to the article interested (my readers are smart, I don’t dummy down for anyone). I also don’t find humans all that interesting; much more ingenuity and variation in the microbial world.

3. Scientists are still finding exciting new discoveries, such as phialophora fungus being more complex than previously known. Do you think there are many more discoveries on the horizon?

Volumes have been written about the complexity of microbial relationships. Yes, there is more to be learned as new technologies emerge. Shotgun sequencing has done a great deal and now Ancestral Sequence Reconstruction is bringing 2-3 billion year old proteins back to life. 

Fungus, by the way, are eukaryotic and exceedingly complex. Some kill plants and suck their juice out as food while others work with trees to supply needed nutrients to their roots in exchange for sugars the leaves make from sunlight. The endosymbiont in their leaves that transform sunlight into food are descents from cyanobacteria who still dominate the seas and originally flooded the planet with oxygen.

4. Bacteria ‘talking’ to each other reminds me of horror films, when plants or whatever ‘come alive’ and hunt humans and other mammals. Is it like that under the microscope?

How do you think you brush your teeth at night and in the morning the entire biofilm with all its microbial inhabitants in the same configuration is back if they didn’t communicate. Microbes have been on Earth for billions of years and they originally lived in mats and still do. These are very complex social systems where communication is a must. Some bacteria swim to the biofilm, crawl up, stand up to look around and then crawl to get where they want to go –chattering all the time. Some also lie to steal their neighbor’s food. Others commit suicide for the benefit of the group. Our cells learned programmed cell death (PCD) from microbes.

5. Has it changed your perceptions of our place in the universe; the meaning of life?

Firstly, I don’t dwell on trivia and secondly, I don’t think there is any meaning to life. Like microbes we get born (or cloned), have a little fun, do a little good and then die. In the great expanse of the universe we’re unimportant and on Earth microbes are more important than we are. Just do what can be done to make the world a better place and then die and get recycled.

6. You call it a journey: does your mind vicariously travel within the microbe world?

I think about microbes of course – it’s my job. Nothing vicarious about it. The journey through life is important because there isn’t a reward at the end; never do what’s expected of you thinking it will pay off – it won’t. Do what makes you happy at all times (outside of killing and plundering of course) because at the end all you’ll have is happy or unhappy memories.

But yes, of course bacteria have gotten bad press. Most are helpful or neutral but we focus on the few that cause disease. It’s in the best interest of chemical manufacturers selling anti-bacterials to make people think all microbes are bad and that’s absolutely not true. Bad press yes and for financial gain. Now it seems virus incur the same injustice – they do good things too; for example, shuttling genes around.

Marcia Stone has articles published in Microbe magazine.

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