Thermophiles in Kamchatka
The New Biology
This was the first time I was in a meeting of biologists. I noted the following things:
(1) The more molecular they were, the less I understood. The reason was that I have been bypassed by several generations of biochemistry, molecular biology and genetic engineering. And what jargon! It was my fault to let it happen, but also there were a couple of people there who could not conceive that someone could not know what 16S rRNA was. (I learned eventually that it is part of the ribosome. By comparing the sequence of 16S rRNAs from various organisms, scientists can make rough determinations about their evolutionary relatedness.)
(2) I imagined that in the struggle between the organismic and the molecular, the molecular worldview had routed the opposition. Indeed, I saw signs of the struggle. A preeminent expert on thermophiles, Karl Stetter, a man responsible for naming a good fraction of the archaea, used some of the language of the DNA world, but clearly wanted to point to its limitations. So he stressed that two species close on the 16S rRNA scale—and therefore presumed to be close on the evolutionary tree—nevertheless had very different metabolisms. I also saw people who were in a way uninterested in the organisms, in the beauty and complexity of their adaptations to the hostile (to humans) environment. Instead of looking under a microscope, they were just eager to get the DNA out of the bugs.
On balance, what was interesting to me was a new breed of microbiologist—delighted to collect the Kamchatka microfauna and eager to see its DNA. It was wonderful to see the enthusiasm of Stetter fishing up a sample (you can be sure it was not his first one) from a boiling well and to see young biologists using the hotel lobby floor as a makeshift chemical laboratory to fix the samples they had collected earlier in the day.
(3) I saw a new ecology at work: Eric Mathur of Diversa Corporation, as he dipped his collecting receptacle under a tree stump near a hot spring and noted with excitement how probably no one had looked in that environment. Maybe there was a group of organisms there, he continued, to oxidize xylenes. Maybe a gang of enzymes. Whether by looking at the organisms, or by looking at their DNA, the interest of the microbiologists was in an ensemble, not the individual. People were clearly thinking in terms of populations.