Twisted Tree of Life Award #3: The Columbus Dispatch on Ancient Bacteria

Was browsing Twitter and I saw one post that caught my eye. @MicrobeWorld, which by the way, rocks, wrote

A microbe that is as old as dirt could one day help keep radioactive metals out of our drinking water

This caught my eye because, well, I study radiation resistance some of the time and the “old as dirt” statement seemed weird.

The article being referred to was in the Columbus Dispatch (The Columbus Dispatch : Tricking toxins) and it was about some interesting work on Shewanella by Brian Lower and others from Ohio State. The work involves using one particular species of Shewanella for bioremediation of radiative waste. The problem however is in the lead in to the article. This is painful to me. It says

A microbe that is as old as dirt could one day help keep radioactive metals out of our drinking water.

Shewanella oneidensis bacteria have existed for billions of years, thriving even when the Earth’s atmosphere lacked oxygen.

This is just so so so wrong. Shewanella oneidensis is one species of a large group in the genus Shewanella which itself is part of one subgroup (the gamma group) of the Phylum Proteobacteria (I note I helped analyze the genome sequence of this species a few years ago – see paper here). While it is possible (though not certain) that the Phylum Proteobacteria was established billions of years ago, it is certain that Shewanella oneidensis did not exist at that time. Perhaps this species has been around for tens of millions of years but certainly not billions. This would be like saying “Humans have been around for hundreds of millions of years” simply because animals have been around for that long. In the context of humans the statement is clearly absurd. It is in fact equally absurd in the context of bacteria. And for this, the Columbus Dispatch is getting my third Twisted Tree of Life Award.

Author: Jonathan Eisen

I am an evolutionary biologist and a Professor at U. C. Davis. (see my lab site here). My research focuses on the origin of novelty (how new processes and functions originate). To study this I focus on sequencing and analyzing genomes of organisms, especially microbes and using phylogenomic analysis

3 thoughts on “Twisted Tree of Life Award #3: The Columbus Dispatch on Ancient Bacteria”

  1. I like to think of prokaryotes as being in the future, in terms of number of generations/mitoses since the origin of life. Longer lifespans lead to evolutionary retardation! Take that, macrozoophiles!Of course, that’s not particularly correct either, but does a good job at insulting the lowly Metazoa…Of course, then you have the “Protists? You mean the PRIMITIVE eukaryotes” clade of biological ignoramuses, and that makes me cry almost more…-Psi-


  2. Not coincidentally, a couple of years ago the Dispatch let its main science reporter go and has depended on general-purpose journalists for science coverage since then. Then a couple of months ago the Dispatch reduced its science coverage by half due to 20% staff cuts in the newsroom and zero advertising revenue from their (formerly 2 per week, now 1 per week) science pages. Science doesn’t pay its way in a general-circulation newspaper.


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