Laboratory strains of Escherichia coli: model citizens or deceitful delinquents growing old disgracefully?
My chief grouch is that many of the attempts to gain a global understanding of this strain and of E. coli in general neglect its ecological and evolutionary context--they treat it almost as something specially created for life in the Elysian fields of the laboratory, rather than as the descendant of an evolved entity, engaged in a fearsome struggle for existence in the bowel, in sewage etc.
Why I am telling you all this? Well, I am now preparing the opening talk for the upcoming meeting of the International E. coli alliance and at the risk of spoiling the suspense for the very few who read this blog and will be attending the conference, I'd like to share with you the image I have just created to make my point!
In fact, laughably, some in the creationist and ID movements do actually subscribe to something like the view parodied here, particularly when in comes to the creation of the E. coli flagellum!
Which in turn provokes the question "why would a beneficent creator create something that causes so much misery to so many people, particularly, as a recent study shows, to women with urinary tract infections that involve the kidneys?!
[I did not create this cartoon and as I am ignorant of its provenance, cannot credit its creator, but I take my hat off to him/her!]
And on the subject of model organisms, similar points apply to HeLa cells and humans. In fact, evolutionary biologist Leigh Van Valen has argued that HeLa cells, which were first derived from African American Henrietta Lacks, now belong in a separate species Helacyton gartlerion the grounds that:
- They have a different chromosome number from humans.
- They occupy a different niche.
- They can replicate indefinitely (in fact they have contaminated many many other cell lines).
I guess the ultimate in the "let's forget about the real world context" is to look at interactions between E. coli K-12 and HeLa cells (and yes, some people do do this!?!).