We believe multi-cellular organization is where it's at, with our mesoderms and our Mercedes, but there are some super-powered single cells which are far more than meets the unaided eye. We might think their mightiest power is confining us to the bathroom after an ill-advised late night snack, but having only one cell to deal with means bacteria can adapt incredibly well - and a single mutation can give rise to powers that make Professor Xavier's wheelchair-accessible mansion look like a home for people who are good at minigolf. Here we look at five organisms that would be called the Super-Cells, if that name wasn't probably already taken by Michael Crichton.
1) Eat Radiation
Humans have only three responses responses to radioactive waste: pay someone else to take it away quickly, die, or develop superpowers. Unfortunately the last option has a vanishingly small success rate and the tragic side-effect of utterly destroying the victims fashion sense. Luckily a species of bacteria with the ability to consume uranium and other extremely antisocial wastes has been discovered by US scientists - and as a bonus, it's utterly impossible to make a crap movie adaptation of a bacteria.
Geobacter sulfurreducens has already been used at the Rifle Mills site to clear up a large amount of what the nuclear industry calls "oops!", and what us non-radioactive humans call "a goddamn nuclear contamination of groundwater and the Colorado river". Following on the brave scientific tradition of not only looking a gift horse in the mouth but sending it to the vet for a full set of dental X-rays, some scientists suggest the metal-munching microbe could form the basis for a bio-battery cell. Because when you've fed a superpowered organism nothing but nuclear waste for years, nothing can go wrong with then sticking it in a box and carrying it around with you.
2) Generate Electricity
For those who prefer not to expose living creatures to nuclear radiation (environmental activists, vets, those living in areas threatened by Godzilla), scientists at Penn State have played microbial matchmaker - pairing bacteria which can work together to consume cellulose and generate electricity. Such bio-electrical sources are gaining momentum as attempts to find non-petroleum based power sources: the cellulose-fuelled option is popular because of the large volumes available, either as waste from agriculture and food processing or harvested from renewable forests.
The production of energy from cellulose is a trick we've been trying to copy from termites for a while - though the idea of basing our energy economy on ravenous vermin would make Agent Smith shout "See! I was right!" Attempts to exactly replicate the mechanism used in insect stomachs have so far failed (and probably led to a few scientists wondering, in the dead of night, if this is what they really expected to be doing with their lives). Many research efforts are now directed at finding a more manageable version of the same process, of which this binary design is one of the more unique.
3) Make oil without the inconvenient "millions of years" thing
In more proof that the line between being retarded or a genius is often whether people tell you to shut up before you try something, a geneticist and a biologist asked "Why don't we just make more petrol?" Before anybody could explain that you'd need a Delorean with an extremely large trunk, and that people would get annoyed when you started stealing animals just to dump them in a hole the cretaceous period, George Church and Chris Somerville of San Carlos-based firm LS9 engineered a form of E. Coli which produces hydrocarbon chains with promising petrol potential.
This work provides an interesting environmentalist dilemma - on the one hand it could eliminate the need for oil drilling altogether, but it would also remove the current impetus to develop alternative energy sources that don't depend on the "burn stuff and don't breathe the smoke" strategy. Not to mention that a sentence involving "E.Coli", "petrol" and "genetically engineered" may well be enough to make an eco -activists head explode on the spot.
4) Cure cancer
The thing people forget is that killing cancer is easy. Radiation, drugs, heat, cold, thumping it with lasers or ultrasonics or a baseball bast, it's just another cell and those things can't put up much of a fight against SCIENCE. The problem isn't wiping out the tumours, it's the NOT killing everything they're attached to - healthy human cells which are unfortunately even more fragile. People have this vision of cancer as a multi-headed chimeric hydra, a diabolical monster rearing over a small doctor armed only with a scalpel. The reality is a lumberjack trying to kill one red ant among a thousand black ones he can't touch, and he's only got a sledgehammer, napalm and an ICBM missile to do it with.
Which is where clostridia step in. A cell-sized secret agent, the bacteria can be injected into a patient armed with cancer-fighting genes. As an anaerobic organism it will only replicate in low-oxygen environments - like the clumps of dead tissue found in tumors. There they begin replicating and target the cancerous cells with the therapeutic genes engineered into them by the scientists at of Maastricht University. Even better, these replication locations are the very sites where more conventional chemo- and radiation-therapy are least effective. Whether this boon from the bacteria is coincidence, or an attempt by the single-cell samaritan to make up for it's antisocial clostridian cousins which cause tetanus and botulism, isn't known.
5) Build a city
Superman can punch whatever threatens him, and Batman is bound to have anticipated it, but very few individuals can react to a crisis by turning into a goddamn city. And those who can (Metroplex of the Autobots and Jack Hawksmoor of the Authority) kick unreasonably large amounts of ass. This dynamic duo is now joined by bacterial hordes such as the infamous E. Coli, after a research collaboration involving Johns Hopkins University, Virginia Tech, the University of California and Lund University.
We usually picture bacteria as solitary individuals - though since we usually only think of them when we're sick, we use much less printable words. Recent results prove that they understand Sesame Street as well as any of us macroscale monkeys though, co-operating in times of crisis for the good of the whole. They form highly organized structures called biofilms, mini-city analogs which can share food intake and waste disposal routes for the good of the whole colony.
Medical researchers are extremely interested in studying how these sickness-causing conurbations are formed, so that they can find better ways of preventing planning permission and destroying those unwanted urban zones for good. After all, when you're suffering from a urinary tract infection the last thing you want to know is that every burning sensation is a block party for your unwelcome guests.
Posted by Luke McKinney.