Forget germ that eats arsenic; check out the one that makes chips

Social-networking, warring, adaptive bacteria redirected for IT work

Think the bacteria NASA found that eats arsenic was a big deal? Sure, if you're a NASA astrobiologist looking for markers of life as it might exist on other planets.

If not and you looked at some of the pictures of Mono Lake, where NASA found the germ, you might just figure it ate arsenic as part of its schtick -- a way to fit in at a place as strange as Mono Lake.

If you're not a fan of bacterial-catastrophe SF novels such as Vitals by Greg Bear, you might not be that impressed with bacteria unless you currently have a cold.

Get impressed.

Not only can the germs you try to leave in the bathroom probably beat you at Soduku, bacteria and other microscopic beasties can do a whole host of useful computing- or engineering-related things if you can tame the constant inter-species combat that may actually control the spread of any individual bacterium on your skin or in your body.

Among other things they can pass messages to each other chemically to coordinate joint attacks on enemies or food, and, possibly, build computer-processor circuits at nano scale if they're given just the right incentive and sets of tools.

They can also, it turns out, eat giant sunken passenger liners, in this case developing into a previously unknown sub-species of bug that eats iron oxide, of which the HMS Titanic has no shortage.

Or they can also just keep being what you think of them as being -- germs that get you sick and develop more resistance against conventional medicines, like the fever-and-diarrhea causing Clostridium Difficile, which is supplanting MRSA as the industry leader, with 500,000 hospitalizations and 28,500 deaths in the U.S. during 2007, and an infection rate that has more than doubled since 1999.

So, given what bacteria we don't really understand can do, it will make you feel better to know that researchers at Binghamton University in New York are extracting bacteria that could be thousands or tens of millions of years old from tiny water droplets trapped in the rocks of Death Valley.

Others are digging them up from silt in the ocean, and in Arctic permafrost, both to trace the evolution of DNA and to look for new avenues for drug development.

No word yet on whether those bugs are interested in giant ocean liners, forming social networks to beat you at Soduku or make you jump in front of a bus.

After a weekend of shocked/excited/really puzzled stories in various media about the "exciting" news about a microbe that eats arsenic, I figured it would be useful to mention the accomplishments of a few of its relatives.

Paying all the attention to the arsenic eater is like ignoring all the smart geek kids at the family holiday dinner to focus on the mouth-breather tearing up the hot-dog-hogging events on the competitive-eating circuit.

It just didn't seem fair.

Kevin Fogarty writes about enterprise IT for ITworld. Follow him on Twitter @KevinFogarty.

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