David Suzuki: We can't ignore the little things that keep us alive

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      Scientists believe life appeared on Earth almost four-billion years ago, about half a billion years after our relatively young planet formed. It would be fascinating to see how life arose and managed to hang on.

      If scientists were to invent time travel to take us back through Earth's history, we'd see little life for most of the four-billion years. Plenty was happening but at a microscopic level as organisms worked out all the intricacies of survival: finding food and energy, evading predators, fighting off disease (even bacteria get virus infections), reproducing and eliminating waste.

      Once those fundamental details were worked out, more complex cells arose by incorporating other cells within themselves to perform specialized functions like capturing energy from the sun (photosynthesis) or generating energy from stored molecules. The stage was set for the final blossoming of life into forms visible to creatures like us: multicellularity. Once an organism was made up of many cells, a division of labour was possible. Various cells specialized in movement, eating, digestion, excretion, and reproduction. All of this occurred in the last fifth of life's existence as seas and land filled with wondrous animals and plants.

      It's a magnificent story and we only know the barest outlines. We tend to focus on big life forms like trees, elephants and whales. That’s understandable. They’re often spectacular. But our bias toward the big and impressive overlooks the importance, and beauty, of what are often dismissed as “creepy crawlies”, such as worms, insects, fungi, and bacteria.

      I was an avid bug collector as a boy. To me, insects were endlessly riveting. Many of them display spectacular colours and patterns and occur in shapes and forms that are far more bizarre and surprising than any Hollywood sci-fi creation. My childhood fascination evolved in college to a focus on heredity in an insect, a common fruit fly, which has revealed so much about genetic principles in humans.

      In our concern with protecting grizzlies and polar bears, whooping cranes and redwood trees, wolves and caribou, we give short shrift to the small creatures that keep the planet livable. Tiny organisms and plant roots filter water as it percolates through soil; insects, bacteria and fungi help plants, animals and dung decompose to create soil; bacteria in legumes capture atmospheric nitrogen and fix it in soil; all green things exchange carbon dioxide for oxygen as they capture sunlight that animals like us can consume and store for our own use. In fact, bacteria directly produce up to half the oxygen we breathe. Microbes in the human body outnumber cells by 10 to one, and many of them keep us alive by helping us digest food and combat infection, among other services.

      Years ago, scientists in Norway showed that a single teaspoon of soil from a beach contained more than 4,000 different species of bacteria. Another teaspoon taken from a nearby deciduous forest yielded a similar number of species, most of them different from the beach group. Soil is not dirt or inert material; it is a complex community of living organisms, yet modern farming techniques often wipe them out.

      Scientists estimate that for every human, there are 200-million insects on Earth. They are important parts of ecosystems, providing services such as pollination, food and pest control. Of all insect species, very few are harmful to humans, yet we spray powerful chemicals that kill all insects just to get at the tiny fraction that causes problems for us.

      Because all life forms have evolved ways to find food, avoid being eaten, heal from infection, reproduce and eliminate waste, we have much to learn if we show some respect and patience to see how they create solutions. Scientists discovered penicillin as a fungus’s way of warding off bacteria. They found cancer-fighting vincristine in the rosy periwinkle and taxol in yew trees. Restriction enzymes, vital tools of genetic engineers, are used by bacteria to fight viral infection.

      We focus on charismatic species like whales, pandas, cedar trees and seals as poster children for conservation. But the small things that keep the biosphere going for creatures like us are probably more threatened because we ignore them. If we spend time studying them, they have much to teach us.



      Little Thing

      Aug 13, 2013 at 7:15pm

      Suzuki comments:

      The stage was set for the final blossoming of life ...

      This is a nonsense statement for two reasons:

      1. Multicellular organisms are in no sense a "final blossoming of life". We simply do not know what comes after this. It may be the most recent blossoming of life - on Earth-, but the universe is expected to go on for trillions of years and who knows what else is out there.

      2. The most successful type of organism, then and now, on the face of, and inside, and above, the planet is bacteria. Multicellular organism are comparatively, both in numbers and in biomass. Multicellular organisms are hardly the "final blossoming of life".

      While I get the fact that Suzuki is trying to show how all life is connected, and that single cell organism are an important part of that, statements such as multicellular organisms are the "final blossoming of life" ignores the past, downgrades the future and overplays the significance of multicellular organisms, specifically humans.

      Michael Castanaveras

      Aug 14, 2013 at 12:26am

      Wow Little Thing...did you ever miss the point. Suzuki AGREES with you.

      Geo engineering

      Aug 14, 2013 at 9:21am

      He still denies we are getting sprayed daily by unmarked white planes, in fact as I write this we are being nailed. The sky is grey when it should be blue.

      It's been called chemtrails but the official name is Geo engineering and it's bad news.

      Earth wont be holding on to any life soon unless it
      has a monsanto tag on it so why does this guy still have his head in the sand?

      WAKE UP mofo's this guy is a relic and like my dad out dated and confused about reality.

      Little Thing

      Aug 14, 2013 at 2:45pm

      @Michael Castanaveras

      Well no I didn't, if you read my post more closely. What I disagree with specifically is the use of loaded language that serves to elevate one form of life over another.