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Lecture: Bacterial cell walls, antibiotics and the origins of life

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2015 Leeuwenhoek Lecture by Professor Jeff Errington FMedSci FRS, at the Royal Society, London, March 17, 2015, open to the public, free, and no registration:

The cell wall is a crucial structure found in almost all bacteria. It is the target for our best antibiotics and fragments of the wall trigger powerful innate immune responses against infection. Surprisingly, many bacteria can switch almost effortlessly into a cell wall deficient “L-form” state. These cells become completely resistant to many antibiotics and may be able to pass under the radar screen of our immune systems. Discover how studies of L-forms have provided surprising insights into various aspects of bacterial cell physiology and biochemistry, as well as a model illuminating how the earliest true cells on the planet might have proliferated. More.


It sometimes makes one wonder if bacteria are smarter than people. But then where are they hiding the vast amounts of information that cannot be acquired randomly within the life of the universe, and must be stored and prevented from corruption? Bornagain77? Any ideas?

Here are some of the key origin of life puzzles.

See also: The Royal Institute of Philosophy and Cambridge University Press Essay contest: “Do Life and Living Forms present a problem for materialism?”

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4 Replies to “Lecture: Bacterial cell walls, antibiotics and the origins of life

  1. 1
    REC says:

    This is an interesting study in contrasts. Design advocates see an apparent adaptation and “wonder if bacteria are smarter than people” and ask “where are they hiding the vast amounts of information that cannot be acquired randomly within the life of the universe, and must be stored and prevented from corruption?”

    Evolutionary biologists can’t invoke magic stores of information, and realize that if not used (selected for), genes will acquire disabling mutations and decay.

    In reality “L-form” phenotypes can be brought about by a single point mutation, and generally seem to come about because of extrinsic (antibiotic) or intrinsic (mutation) disruption of the normal cell wall synthesis and cell division machinery.

    Intelligent design creationists, interestingly, have consistently referred to to the normal mechanisms of cell wall synthesis and division as irreducibly complex and “fiendishly difficult challenge to modern evolutionary theory.” But now we know cells can live without either, and survive by membrane extension and fragmentation.

  2. 2
    News says:

    But this probably only works for bacteria.

    They do seem to be storing a lot of information somewhere we can’t see it.

    No reason to think that is magic.

  3. 3
    News says:

    While we are here, REC at 1, destroying a cell wall is not the same as developing it.

    It is easy to destroy something irreducibly complex.

    Think: the manuscript of an important work of science or literature. Creating it was a different matter.

    Also, the fact that a life form can live without something doesn’t demonstrate much. The human brain could be irreducibly complex even if a sponge doesn’t need a brain.

    But, of course, if a colony of sponges turned out to be acting like an organism, one ought to ask, how do they do so? Where are they storing the information?

    The bacteria appear able to convert to a wall-optional system under threat from antibiotics. They don’t live that way if they can help it. It is a defensive adaptation that must be accounted for.

    It may signal an earlier state of life when walls were weak/non-existent.

    Of course, it may also have arisen under threat from antibiotics (which have co-evolved with other bacteria and were only recently put to use by humans).

    The trouble with Darwinian theory is that there are just too many answers running ahead of too few questions.

  4. 4
    bornagain77 says:

    News as to L-forms. This appears to be a design feature that allows the bacteria to penetrate into much narrower confines than it normally could (to thread a needle so to say):

    L-form bacteria – Generation in cultures
    L-forms can be generated in the laboratory from many bacterial species that usually have cell walls, such as Bacillus subtilis or Escherichia coli. This is done by inhibiting peptidoglycan synthesis with antibiotics or treating the cells with lysozyme, an enzyme that digests cell walls. The L-forms are generated in a culture medium that is the same osmolarity as the bacterial cytosol (an isotonic solution), which prevents cell lysis by osmotic shock.[2] L-form strains can be unstable, tending to revert to the normal form of the bacteria by regrowing a cell wall, but this can be prevented by long-term culture of the cells under the same conditions that were used to produce them.[6]
    Some studies have identified mutations that occur, as these strains are derived from normal bacteria.[1][2] One such point mutation is in an enzyme involved in the mevalonate pathway of lipid metabolism that increased the frequency of L-form formation 1,000-fold.[1] The reason for this effect is not known, but it is presumed that the increase is related to this enzyme’s role in making a lipid important in peptidoglycan synthesis.
    Another methodology of induction relies on nanotechnology and landscape ecology. Microfluidics devices can be built in order to challenge peptidoglycan synthesis by extreme spatial confinement. After biological dispersal through a constricted (sub-micrometre scale) biological corridor connecting adjacent micro habitat patches, L-form-like cells can be derived.[7]

    and reference 7 takes us to:

    Bacterial growth and motility in sub-micron constrictions – 2009
    Excerpt: In many naturally occurring habitats, bacteria live in micrometer-size confined spaces. Although bacterial growth and motility in such constrictions is of great interest to fields as varied as soil microbiology, water purification, and biomedical research, quantitative studies of the effects of confinement on bacteria have been limited. Here, we establish how Gram-negative Escherichia coli and Gram-positive Bacillus subtilis bacteria can grow, move, and penetrate very narrow constrictions with a size comparable to or even smaller than their diameter. We show that peritrichously flagellated E. coli and B. subtilis are still motile in microfabricated channels where the width of the channel exceeds their diameters only marginally (?30%). For smaller widths, the motility vanishes but bacteria can still pass through these channels by growth and division. We observe E. coli, but not B. subtilis, to penetrate channels with a width that is smaller than their diameter by a factor of approximately 2. Within these channels, bacteria are considerably squeezed but they still grow and divide. After exiting the channels, E. coli bacteria obtain a variety of anomalous cell shapes. Our results reveal that sub-micron size pores and cavities are unexpectedly prolific bacterial habitats where bacteria exhibit morphological adaptations.

    Considering how important bacteria have been, and are, for maintaining a stable habitat for higher life forms on earth, then it is not surprising that they have been designed to penetrate as deeply into the earth as possible:

    “Microbial life can easily live without us; we, however, cannot survive without the global catalysis and environmental transformations it provides.”
    – Paul G. Falkowski – Professor Geological Sciences – Rutgers

    Of related note:

    Biological Information, a Mile and a Half Beneath the Ocean Floor – December 16, 2014
    Excerpt: The International Ocean Discovery Program (IODP) sent their drill down to a depth of 2400 meters — a mile and a half. “The tiny, single-celled organisms survive in this harsh environment on a low-calorie diet of hydrocarbon compounds and have a very slow metabolism,” ,,
    Everywhere we look, even in the harshest environments, life seems to find a way to survive.

    As well, microbes deep in the earth’s crust are found to be surprisingly similar all over the world:

    Collecting Census Data On Microbial Denizens of Hardened Rocks Dec. 9, 2013
    Excerpt: What they’re finding is that, even miles deep and halfway across the globe, many of these (microbial)communities are somehow quite similar.
    The results,,, suggest that these communities may be connected,,,
    he said. “we’re seeing the same types of organisms everywhere we look.”
    Schrenk leads a team,, studying samples from deep underground in California, Finland and from mine shafts in South Africa. The scientists also collect microbes from the deepest hydrothermal vents in the Caribbean Ocean.
    “It’s easy to understand how birds or fish might be similar oceans apart,” Schrenk said. “But it challenges the imagination to think of nearly identical microbes 16,000 kilometers apart from each other in the cracks of hard rock at extreme depths, pressures and temperatures.”
    “Integrating this region into existing models of global biogeochemistry and gaining better understanding into how deep rock-hosted organisms contribute or mitigate greenhouse gases (and toxic metals) could help us unlock puzzles surrounding modern-day Earth, ancient Earth,,,

    Needless to say, that finding is not what evolution would have predicted:

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