Mysterious Microbe Offers Clues to How Cancer Works

So, it's no surprise that no one knows why the microbes, that have survived all these years by eating bacteria, have such an extensive communications system, but Manning has a hunch.

"These organisms spin around, and that causes bacteria to swim into them," he said. "They have a little collar that traps the bacteria, then they eat them. So, you could guess they need to talk to the bacteria, or find out when they've landed on them, and that's communication."

And it's quite possible, he added, that they do talk to each other, at least when they are nearby.

At this point, the microbe appears to be the "first one-celled organism that looks so much like humans," at least genetically speaking, Manning said. But this research is only one element in a rapidly growing scientific field that affects virtually everything we know about life on Earth.

For decades, scientists were left with yeast and fruit flies and that worm, C. elegans, to piece together the genetic framework for life. But the rage now is to complete the genetic story, or the genome, of every creature, and that is changing everything.

It is a very good time to be studying genetics.

"It's amazing," Manning said. "I never stop thinking how lucky I am.

"I'd like to think that, in a thousand years, this is the stuff that people will still know," he added. "They will have forgotten about George Bush and Iraq and the Dow, but this is the stuff we are made of."

Lee Dye is a former science writer for the Los Angeles Times. He now lives in Juneau, Alaska.

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