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Bacteria that could pass as X-men: part 1

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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This idea for a post has been kicking around in my head for a while now. As I’ve been finding blogging hard to get into recently, this should kick-start me back into it by letting me write about comics as well as science. Part two is now up here!

1)  The Blob

Like many of the X-men, the Blob has gone through several incarnations of character but the one main continuous feature is that he’s big. That’s pretty much it. The size gives him supernatural strength, the ability to be ‘immovable’ (although you could probably shift him with a few tanks if it came to it) and occasionally he has his very own gravitational field. His name is usually Fred Dukes.

The Bacteria: Thiomargarita namibiensis

sulphide bacteria

Image from NASA, credit below

Thiomargarita means “sulphur pearl” and this bacteria is a gram-negative little beasty found in the oceans. It can grow up to 0.75 mm wide, which may not sound much compared to the bulk of Freddy Dukes, but bear in mind that even at his height the blob was no more than 10X bigger than the average person. Thiomargarita is over one million times larger than the majority of bacteria. Although it can drift around on the tides, it has no way of propelling itself around, which means that once it stops it’s pretty immovable as well.

The reason most bacteria don’t grow this large is because they rely on diffusion to get nutrients inside the cell, and 0.75mm is a very large distance in terms of diffusion times. In most bacteria, the inside of the cell would starve. Thiomargarita survives by having lots of large vacuoles which are filled with nutrients. These vacuoles are also what help to make it larger; they act as a nutrient-holding network inside the cell.

2) Magneto

Magneto is one of the Big Bad of the X-men. His mutation allows him to manipulate metal and not necessarily magnetic metal either (that sort of varies with the plotline). Any metal he comes into contact with he can bend, shape and distort. He can manipulate bullets, twist up helicopters and in one memorable movie scene pull all of the iron out of a guys body through his torso.

The bacteria: Magnetosome-containing bacteria

I’ve written about this once before, and will in all likelihood cover it again sometime,  but there are some bacteria that contain little organelles called “magnetosomes”. These particles contain magnetite crystals which although they don’t allow bacteria to attract metal, they can act like little compasses, which means the bacteria can all line up in the direction of the earth’s geomagnetic field.

Magnetosomes lined up inside a bacteria, paper reference below

Several species of bacteria are also capable of eating metal, including Halomonas titanicae which was found working it’s way through the remains of the titanic. There aren’t yet any bacteria that can make someone’s blood come flying out of their chest, but the Ebola virus comes pretty close.

3) Toad

Toad’s main mutational power is “being a bit like a Toad” so it’s not surprising that he’s gone through several different incarnations as the comics change and evolve. Since his original creation as a bug-eyed Renfield-like lackey he’s been an English punk in Ultimate X-men, a strange bald Shakespearian actor in Age of Apocalypse to finally being played by Ray Parks in the film. His powers vary; while he usually keeps the leaping ability and long tongue he can also occasionally spit slime, excrete slime, and stick to walls. Sometimes he is given the ability to speak to frogs, or to be really good with computers.

The bacteria: Thiobacillus ferrooxidans, leptospirillum ferrooxidans

Both of the above are iron-bacteria that live in stagnant water. They smell bad, they’re slimy, and they’re quite hard to get rid of once they establish themselves in a water-pipe.

iron bacteria

Orange-coloured iron bacteria living in a puddle. From the NH Estuaries Project, link below.

It isn’t so much the bacteria themselves that are slimy, but the remains of the things they eat. In order to live and grow they oxidise dissolved iron in the water, producing ferric oxide. As ferric oxide is insoluble, it hangs around as a sort of brown gelatinous slime that gets stuck in the water and stains everything it comes into contact with. As the bacteria spread, they leave behind them a trail of brown slimy stuff that can build up inside pipes and plumbing.

It’s a bit of a stretch, but it’s Toad-like enough, and Toad is my favourite X-men so I wasn’t about to leave him out.

Part two coming soon: Multiple Man, Berzerker and Mystique.

Credits:
Source for fig. 1, NASA image in the public domain.
Ref. for fig 2: Komeili, A. (2006). Magnetosomes Are Cell Membrane Invaginations Organized by the Actin-Like Protein MamK Science, 311 (5758), 242-245 DOI: 10.1126/science.1123231
Source for fig. 3 – all rights released by the NH estuaries project.

S.E. Gould About the Author: A biochemist with a love of microbiology, the Lab Rat enjoys exploring, reading about and writing about bacteria. Having finally managed to tear herself away from university, she now works for a small company in Cambridge where she turns data into manageable words and awesome graphs. Follow on Twitter @labratting.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. S.E. Gould (labrat) 4:15 am 12/20/2011

    Emailed comment from C. Dickerson from the university of Minnesota: “An interesting article but your mention of magneto-like bacteria should have included hemolytic bacteria. While they don’t pull all the iron out in as dramatic a fashion, their hemolysins are for the purpose of accessing and extracting iron from a readily available source, red blood cells. Gotta love the Staphylococcus aureus and Streptococcus pyogenes, among others.”

    Link to this

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