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Small Things Considered: Two Tales of Symbiosis

by Moselio Schaechter

I don't get tired of symbioses, something I attribute to the Power Law of Symbiosis I just made up: Interacting genomes are more interesting than single ones by the nth power of their numbers, where n is a matter of personal preference. Here I relate two examples that should make the point.

My first story is about a finding that should have caused its Italian researchers to use a mild expletive, such as “Corpo di Bacco!” (“By the body of Bacchus!” I grew up in Italy, which entitles me to this bit of linguistic irrelevancy.) What they found is amazing. That a bacterial endosymbiont had been found to dwell inside the mitochondria of ticks was surprising in itself (see a previous post), but to now find them to possess what looks to be a complete set of flagellar genes, twenty-six in number, is stunning. First, do these genes actually work, that is, actually produce flagella? Convincing proof of that is still lacking because, as the authors point out, observing flagella in electron microscope sections is not easy; they are very hard to distinguish when cut crosswise. However, these genes are transcribed and one of their products can be identified on the surface of the endosymbionts. In addition, these genes have conserved domains and structural features typical of other flagellar genes.

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