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State of the Species

In State of the Species (Orion Magazine, 2012), Charles Mann discusses whether civilization is doomed to collapse as a consequence of uncontrolled growth destroying our habitat.

Some of the comments following the article are interesting. Ruben Nelson writes:

"This piece names what I see to be the root dilemma we face as a species in the 21st century — consciously choosing to change the trajectory of our modern/Industrial form of civilization or unconsciously continuing to commit to a path that over time leads to the extinction of many more species, likely including our own."

Jeff Gore, a biophysicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and his colleagues Christoph Ratzke and Jonas Denk, report that when a sample of Paenibacillus sp., a soil bacteria, is fed a diet of glucose and nutrients in the laboratory and allowed to grow at will, the microbes end up polluting their local environment so quickly and completely that the entire population soon kills itself off.

In essence, the researchers said, the microbes commit “ecological suicide.” The study was published in April in Nature Ecology and Evolution.

“The effect is so dramatic,” Dr. Gore said. “You have an exponential growth of the population followed by exponential death.” Within 24 hours of the onset of the death spiral, he said, “no viable cells were left in the entire culture.”

It’s not that the microbes had exhausted their resources: Food remained to feed on. But in gorging heedlessly on the glucose bounty, each bacterium had secreted a steady flow of acidic waste into the culture medium, until the ambient pH level had plunged lethally low.

“It’s a strong pH change,” Dr. Gore said. “The cells don’t realize what they’re doing in time to stop doing it.” ...
The new research suggests that extinction is more easily set in motion than previously thought, and that once it gets started, the responsible parties may be helpless to make it stop. ...
And humans, well, where do we start? Digging up lead, forging it into water pipelines and adding it to cosmetics, paint, gasoline and other everyday goods before realizing that lead is toxic in tiny doses, especially to the brain.
- Natalie Angier, A Population That Pollutes Itself Into Extinction (and It’s Not Us), NYT, April 30, 2018






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