You Are What You Eat

Chris Black
28 Oct 2004
Microbes In The News
Bio 101, Mellies & Booth
Reed College

On the 11th of October 2004, the website of Nature magazine reported the successful culturing of a legendarily fastidious microbe. Walsby's square archaeon will likely be dubbed Haloquadratum walsbyi in honor of its salt-loving ways and its discoverer Anthony Walsby.

I find this intriguing on several counts, most of which can be summarized as it pleases my intellectual aesthetic. Firstly, the organism is pretty nearly square (much like Jay's diagrams of E. coli, though not as clearly annotated). There's a certain pleasing symmetry to the idea of a halophile that looks like a NaCl crystal. Secondly, despite a preferred environment that bears a close resemblance to pickle brine, it refused in vitro propagation for more than two decades. This pleases me because the natural (read: ‘a naive’) assumption would be to expect the fussiest microbes to also be the most fragile and least suited to a challenging environment. Nerd that I am, any news that allows me to mock Average People and their assumptions is interesting to me.

Further gratifying my nerdy mocking tendencies, the article repeatedly refers to H. walsbyi as a bacterium. Presumably this inconsistency of nomenclature was the reporter's mistake. I would usually expect better from Nature, although after going back to modify several of the words that now read microbe in the preceding paragraphs I'm inclined to agree that to most the distinction between bacteria and archea is a fine one.

My final reason for intrigue is that I foresee great strides in the science of food preservation as an eventual result of this work. According to Nature, The culture needs to be hypersaline: at least 18% salt, which is roughly the same concentration as soy sauce, leaving us to wonder if this long-awaited success might have come when the researchers finally remembered to add that half-teaspoon of lemon juice before serving. Others will babble the obvious platitudes about Mars and early terrestrial life. I want to know what these bugs can tell us about cheese and sauerkraut.