Fig. 1 “Where the Wild Things Are” (Source: Maurice Sendak, 1963)
The song “Wild Things” by Alessia Cara inspired this post. Why? Well, other than the classic children’s story of a little boy playing with monsters, this song reminds me of all the types of organisms that my colleagues and I study (or “play with” if you will) in biology. So I have to ask, what would you consider wild things?
For me, it’s microorganisms.
I bet I know what you are thinking: “Hang on a second, how are microbes… ‘wild things’? Aren’t they just a bunch of tiny, random cells?”
Now, maybe you realize some microbes make you sick (Chipotle anyone?), some help you digest food (the microbiome), and some are used for making everyday items (cheese, beer, and biodegradable plastics). But viewing bacteria on the same level as “lions, tigers, and bears” is just strange to think about, right? The truth is microbial life is vast and they have communities and ecosystems just like the rest of life… you just have to look a little harder to find these wild things. The field that investigates this is known as microbial ecology, the study of microorganisms interacting with each other and their environment.
So today I want to take you to my small world, focusing on an argument that I was first taught in microbial ecology:
“alles is overal:maar het milieu selecteert”
Translation: “Everything is everywhere, but the environment selects.” Since 1934, when Lourens Baas-Becking wrote this famous hypothesis, debates about it have ensued; we have been talking for 82 years! Why has this been such a hot topic for so long?
Well as we discussed earlier, microbes are not typically thought of at the same level as macroorganisms (mammals, birds, fish, etc.). Macroorganims can clearly be seen in environments – you’d know if you saw a polar bear, wouldn’t you? Bacteria are tougher to see. In fact, we still struggle in the 21st century to detect what is present in our water and soil despite being able to look at bacterial DNA “fingerprints” known as 16S rDNA. This inability is known as a “detection limit”. For example, let’s say we have two species: “A” and “B”. If there is one bacterial cell of “A” among hundreds of cells of “B”, you won’t be able to see the DNA fingerprint of “A” in your sample because it is not abundant enough for you to pick up. Since microbiologists are limited by the methods and technology available, it’s tough to tell who’s where and why on a global scale.
For those in support of the Baas-Becking hypothesis, it is thought that all microorganisms are everywhere on earth. This is also known as “microbial cosmopolitanism”. The reason you see different amounts of bacteria (and some below detection) is whether or not the environment makes the bacteria happily grow. So that one “A” bacterial cell among the hundreds of “B” cells may be because it can’t function as well in that particular environment. If you switched the environment to be more favorable for “A”, then that bacterial species would have a larger amount of cells while the “B” species would be too few to see. The point is though that “A” and “B” are present in both environments, but at different concentrations.
For those against the hypothesis, microorganisms are limited by dispersal, or spreading, around the world and such spreading is by chance. Environment still plays a role in activity once the bacteria gets there, but it is not the sole reason you see microorganisms in greater or lesser amounts. The reason why the “A” bacteria species is not detected in your sample could be simply because it never made it to that environment.
Now that you know both sides of the debate, I am going to leave it up to you. What do you think? Is everything everywhere or are there dispersal limitations for microbes like you see for macroorganisms? Please leave questions and comments below. The debate has been going for 82 years. We might as well keep it going, right?
 De Wit, Rutger, and Thierry Bouvier. “‘Everything is everywhere, but, the environment selects’; what did Baas Becking and Beijerinck really say?.” Environmental microbiology 8, no. 4 (2006): 755-758.
More From Thats Life [Science]
- I’m Likin’ That Lichen
- Celebrate the Holidays with a Decorative Parasite
- Sleeping One Hemisphere at a Time
- Through the Mycologist's Hand Lens: Deceptive Decomposers
- Life Science in Outer Space!
- 5 Things You Didn’t Know About Rats
- Watermelon Snow
- Critter Candid Cam
- Three Cool Plants in Hot Places
- A parasite only a moth could love
- Telling tales of plants and their names
- The Colorful World of Primate Hair
- Where do fish go in winter?
- You Scratch My Back and I’ll Scratch Yours
- Alien Microbes: How studying hyperthermophiles can help us discover life on other planets
- Life, the universe, and everything: Dreams of being a biophysicist
- Bug Sleuth – One Entomologist’s Mission to ID a Mysterious Swarm of Wasps
- Horny and Hungry: The Dilemma of Sexual Cannibalism
- Who’s who? The elusive difference between butterflies and moths
- Tuberculosis - A Romantic Disease?
- Ode to a Few Arachnids
- Monotropa uniflora - This wildflower is pretty wild
- Eavesdropping in the Animal Kingdom: Sneaky Creatures Just Trying to Get Ahead
- Trypanosomes - A Weird Pathogen You Haven't Heard Of
- A Beautiful 9/11 Tribute, but a Fiasco for Migratory Birds
- Cats can have AIDS, too.
- Part 2: Does catching Pidgeys help you notice Pigeons? Interviews with Pokémon Go Researchers
- Biodiversity in my Backyard: Encounters with Pidgeys and Dratinis, Part 1
- Fins, Limbs, Rays, and Digits – A Beginner’s Guide to Terrestrial Living
- Fins, Limbs, Rays, and Digits – A Beginner's Guide to Terrestrial Living
- Five things that really stink about the Brown Marmorated Stink Bug
- Tricks but no Treats - An Orchid’s Guide to Making a Fool of Your Pollinator
- Tracking the lost years - where do baby sea turtles grow?
- Posing as a Bird Mama: the adventures of a researcher-turned-bird-parent
- Hot moves and sexy sons · When Boys Become Men By Dancing
- The hungry caterpillar in real life
- Mantis Shrimp Vision - Seeing in Secret Code
- When It Comes to Bird Beaks - Size Matters
- Is your gut trying to kill your resolve? · Mind over microbe
- Recent talk of walls in the media has brought up a lot of emotions, but what do walls do in nature? · When a Wall is just a Wall
- Bees are more than buzzing insects around you · May the Bees Be With You: Maintaining the Sweet Balance in Life
- Neither a toad nor a worm · Nematodes: The super microscopic animal!
- Snap! Flash! Bang! Find out how ocean-dwelling pistol shrimp fire bubble ‘bullets’ to stun their unsuspecting prey. · How Pistol Shrimp Kill with Bubbles
- Who needs males after all?
- Ecology and Behavior of Woodchucks · Opposition Research on My Garden’s Greatest Nemesis
- Vision in Jumping Spiders · Watching Your Every Move
- Slimed and Consumed - The Blob is Real!
- The Evolution and Ecological Impacts of Cats · Lion in Sheep's Clothing
- What happens when frogs have to compete for acoustic space and a chance to be heard? · Struggling to be Heard - Competition in a Complex Soundscape
- Think Genghis Khan and Napoleon were the most successful invaders? Think again. · Invasive Species and Invasion: Part 1
- When, and how, terror birds invade
- 8 Reasons Plants Are Amazing
- Too Clean for Comfort · How our obsession with cleanliness might be hurting our health
- Stop, evaluate, and listen - serotonin surges when a female is present
- No Teeth, Long Tongue, No Problem - Adaptations for Ant-eating
- The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly - Predators, Parasitoids, and Parasites
- How our microbiome affects our health and vice versa · If you don't care for your microbiome, you might want to start
- Finding new ways to grow bacteria to progress science · Culturing the Least Cultured Members of Society
- Hit the Road Jack
- What Happened to Your Nose?
- Building better plants - Norman Borlaug and the Green Revolution
- Love Songs for Nobody - Birdsong in Winter
- We know we get infections from time to time. Why does this happen? · The Evolution of Virulence
- How cheese rinds may be a valuable tool for microbial discovery · The Unseen World – On Cheese?
- Find Me Where the Wild Things Are
- A commentary on how to make science more ‘clickable’ · You won’t believe this simple trick to tell if your coral is healthy or not
- Some species hide in plain sight, but scientists have ways to suss them out · Cryptic Species Hide in Plain Sight
- Minuscule Hitchhikers Pinch a Ride · Creature Feature - Pseudoscorpions
- World Fish Migration Day 2016!
- Walking With Giant Anteaters
- Why we should care about sea turtles · When A Sea Turtle Balanced Earth
- More ›