Life's Engines: How Microbes Made Earth Habitable (Science Essentials)

Life's Engines: How Microbes Made Earth Habitable (Science Essentials)

Language: English

Pages: 224

ISBN: 0691173354

Format: PDF / Kindle (mobi) / ePub

For almost four billion years, microbes had the primordial oceans all to themselves. The stewards of Earth, these organisms transformed the chemistry of our planet to make it habitable for plants, animals, and us. Life's Engines takes readers deep into the microscopic world to explore how these marvelous creatures made life on Earth possible--and how human life today would cease to exist without them.

Paul Falkowski looks "under the hood" of microbes to find the engines of life, the actual working parts that do the biochemical heavy lifting for every living organism on Earth. With insight and humor, he explains how these miniature engines are built--and how they have been appropriated by and assembled like Lego sets within every creature that walks, swims, or flies. Falkowski shows how evolution works to maintain this core machinery of life, and how we and other animals are veritable conglomerations of microbes.

A vibrantly entertaining book about the microbes that support our very existence, Life's Engines will inspire wonder about these elegantly complex nanomachines that have driven life since its origin. It also issues a timely warning about the dangers of tinkering with that machinery to make it more "efficient" at meeting the ever-growing demands of humans in the coming century.














electronics parts in small stores down on Canal Street and made a crystal radio. The strongest signal was 770 AM WABC. In fact, it was so strong, it was the only one I could listen to on my crystal radio, which used the incredibly small electrical field generated by radio waves as its power supply. I could attach an alligator clip from my crystal radio to my radiator and listen for free through a small earphone. P rologue    5 Cousin Brucie was a hyper disc jockey who shouted a blurb for the

two friends and colleagues, Ken Nealson, then at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography, and the late J. Woodland (Woody) Hastings, at Harvard University. They were interested in how luminescent bacteria that live in the light-­emitting organs of some marine fish work. In such organs, the bacteria are found at extremely high densities, upward of 100 billion cells per cubic millimeter. When the microbes from the organs were isolated and grown in pure cultures at low cell densities, they were

appear to have been horizontally transferred through several microbial lineages. Opsins are also found in corals, where the pigment-­protein complex senses light, and then the animal uses that cue for spawning. In the evolution of true eyes, which not only sense light but also focus an image, a similar type of rhodopsin was layered across membranes. A lens made of collagen formed, and the optical “camera” eye was coupled to sensory systems leading to a complex organ, the brain, which could

to produce cheeses, to modify soybeans (for example, to produced miso paste and soy sauce), and to create many other products from beans, cereals, fruits and vegetables, fish, and even meats. The fermentation process is an example of our “peaceful” coexistence with microbes, and it has served at least three purposes from a human perspective. It allows much longer shelf lives of foods. That was especially important when food supplies were tied to seasonal availability and when other means of

influential than only a century ago. The evolution of language and the rapid transfer of information helped reduce microbial control of human population growth. We appear to have temporarily escaped the Red Queen constraint and in so doing have entered an exponential growth phase of human population. As an undergraduate student, I worked in a microbiology laboratory at City College of New York, growing algal strains for experiments. In the laboratory, the growth of a single microbe in a culture

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