Life in fluctuating environments

By Jen Nguyen

Lately I’ve been caught up with bacterial growth. Like the kind that spreads over raw cheese, forming a rind and eventually flavor. While the development of this colony is in itself fascinating (and delicious!), it’s not what particularly gets me – I’m amazed that growth even starts.

During my last visit home to California, I toured Cowgirl Creamery and sampled Red Hawk: a lovely cheese with a lovely story. The rose-orange color, corresponding bacterium and taste were all a product of an accident. A protocol gone wrong. (Or right, depending on your perspective.)

As the story goes, a batch of aging cheeses was neglected and the culture overgrown. In a half-ditch effort to save the batch, the rounds were scrubbed in salt water and left out to sit. An unusual blush developed, someone dared to taste it, and – as chance would have it – a novel market item was born.

Red Hawk’s unique appearance, odor, and funk derive from a marine bug of the genus Brevibacterium. Apparently these bacteria float around in the Point Reyes air, drifting until they encounter a round of adolescent cheese.

This is incredible to me. Not the part about marine bacteria in air; waves break, droplets dry, and particles aerosolize. But that a bug isolated from seawater and fish guts can then travel via air to grow in a substantially different habitat, is that not remarkable? This bug didn’t book a plane ticket to Cowgirl. Rather, it was repeatedly thrust into new environments and succeeded greatly.

Now I risk anthropomorphizing, which is a dangerous thing, especially with microbes. Our intuition about the world largely fails if we try to impose it onto theirs. But be as it will, my awe stems at least in part from my attempts to empathize. Sure, life happens. But I don’t imagine I’d do all that well if I was unexpectedly cut off from food for even a handful of hours.

By comparison, our lives seemed too good to be true. A reliable food supply, the promise of shelter – what luxury! Especially as a middle-class resident in the Golden State, which boasts only a miniscule fraction of the country’s farmland yet produces a hefty claim of the crop. With naïve nostalgia I would refer to California as “the land of wonder,where everything grows. That was until I realized that I – like bacteria depend on resources that are not under my control but the environment’s.

Last month, my family sent me a box of persimmons grown from a tree in our backyard. (For those who have never tried a persimmon, I highly recommend.) Happy nevertheless to have had them, I couldn’t help but notice their meager size, odd texture, and poor taste, presumably an effect of California’s now three-year drought.

Because the West depends on accumulated snowmelt for a majority of its water, the climate largely affects key commodities, such as sanitation and agriculture. As our reservoirs diminish, the availability of water changes. And when the available water becomes sufficiently mismanaged, we’ll find ourselves cast in a real-life production of Urinetown (a musical, also recommended), whether we like it or not.

While we can’t force snow to fall, we can control how we respond to environmental limitations. During the Big Dry, a drought that lasted about a decade, the Australian government spent billions on support packages for farmers. In California, farmers are investing into new groundwater wells. Will these actions succeed over the timescales we require?

This brings me back to bacteria and my ever-deepening respect for them. Their solutions may not be ours. (It may not matter to them if a skewed resource distribution forces the majority to die. And they are likely less fickle and demanding than we.) But this uncanny ability to live – and perhaps thrive – in wild fluctuating environments is an admirable trait.

Perhaps limiting ourselves to one song in the shower, or pay-per-use toilets, or choosing desert stargazing over desert golf, seems somewhat restrictive. But life on Earth has existed for billions of years in exceedingly restrictive environments, probably even more so than that of marine bacteria today (no cheese). The world fluctuates. Life learns to live within nature’s limits, and I realize I am no exception.

Image credit: Benjamin Wolfe

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3 Comments

  1. I can’t get over the Brevibacterium cheese story, Jen: so good!! What a fun and concrete instance of “everything is everywhere, but the environment selects.”

    I wonder if coastal marine bugs are particularly amenable to surviving aerosolization because they’re also accustomed to being deposited and left to desiccate on the shore by wave action.

    • Diana: yes, I love the idea of bacterial migration! I used to think a lot of what happens to bacteria blown from whale holes, etc. Piggybacking off other organisms, surfing the wind… bugs sure travel in style!

      I find your question super interesting: how tolerant are bugs to sudden change, and how might the response differ between species? What might a shift from water to air require: altered membrane composition, suspended metabolic activity and gene expression? Is such a shift possible for bugs of all physiologies, or are only a subset prepared for a quick transition? Or maybe none can survive a long flight, and only very quickly traveling bugs live to taste cheese!

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