Science’s Global Conundrums

Christophe Galfard in World Policy Insititute:

ScreenHunter_01 Dec. 18 12.23Extremophiles thrive in the bubbling acidic springs of Yellowstone, in ocean beds miles below the sea surface, and in the radioactive pools of nuclear power plants. They flourish in places so hostile that any other living being would be crushed, dissolved, or melted within seconds. These tiny organisms were discovered during the second half of the 20th century, and today they happen to be Patrick Forterre’s passion. Professor Forterre works at the Pasteur Institute, named after Louis Pasteur, the 19th century French scientist who fathered what we now call microbiology and who discovered, among other breakthroughs, the vaccines for anthrax and rabies and the pasteurization process.

For any normal human being, walking through the Pasteur Institute’s corridors is a frightening experience. Women and men in lab coats chat mindlessly while holding white polystyrene boxes at arm’s length. It is easy to be overcome with a paralyzing fear that these boxes contain killer microbes ready to bore into your body, giving you a foretaste of hell while they turn your flesh into a microscopic battlefield. In the same way sharks became a public marine nightmare after Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, a host of Hollywood movies suggests the only good microbe is an eradicated one.

That is, of course, wrong. Without the billions of microbes that live inside our bodies, it would be impossible to turn the food we eat into energy. Worse, without the billions of microbes that carpet the oceans’ surface, we wouldn’t be here at all. There wouldn’t be any oxygen for us.

More here.