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Sunday, August 09, 2009

Could we live on treacle if we had the right bacteria?

Cicadas are a very successful set of insect species, and I have well into 6 figures of them living on our suburban lot. But they live for years on nothing but tree sap? How is this possible?

John McCutcheon, interviewed by LiveScience
suggests this is due to symbiotic bacteria: "McCutcheon says that cicadas supplement their diet by maintaining complicated relationships with two species of specialized bacteria that live inside their cells. The bacteria produce essential nutrients for the cicadas that the animals neither receive from their sap diets nor produce themselves."

So, are these particularly sophisticated bacteria? No. "this organism has the smallest bacterial genome known to science. In other words, it has less genetic material than any other cellular organism that has, thus far, been identified."

So, perhaps the Dormouse in Alice in Wonderland was just ahead of his time?

`What did they live on?' said Alice, who always took a great interest in questions of eating and drinking.

`They lived on treacle,' said the Dormouse, after thinking a minute or two.

`They couldn't have done that, you know,' Alice gently remarked; `they'd have been ill.'

Not with the right symbiotic bacteria!