Recently, however, I have changed my mind. Apparently, geneticists have identified the simplest of all known living organisms. It's a tiny microbe called Mycoplasma genitalium. We have around 100,000 genes, but M. genitalium has only 480. It's possible that it is not only the simplest known microbe, but the simplest one that can exist. And where does this fundamental creature live? By the billions, in my genital tract and yours, and in everyone else's on the planet. And if that isn't a cosmic joke to tell to every creationist you know, I don't know what is.
But is it God's only joke? Maybe not. We all know that geneticists are clever people at technical tasks like cutting and splicing genes, and identifying rapists and murderers by something mysterious called PCR. But they show an appalling but appealing lack of sophistication in their science.
As you read this, in a small building somewhere in Maryland, geneticists (funded by our tax dollars) are playing rather nasty games with M. genitalium. They are deliberately pulling off its genes, one by one, to try to see whether each gene does something important. The idea is that if you pull off a gene and then culture the genetically mutilated microbe in nourishing soup, it will die if the gene was necessary, and flourish if it was not. This is exactly the level of science that you may have seen in a four-year-old boy who pulls bits off an insect until it stops wriggling.
The maimed insect doesn't reproduce, and even a four-year-old has some idea what each pulled-off piece did. Already, the geneticists have found that M. genitalium has over 100 genes that each do something vital to its survival, but they can't tell what it is.
The whole idea of playing gene-zipping games with M. genitalium is that you are trying to end up with a genetically altered, fully functioning microbe form that multiplies. So we have a laboratory that is deliberately churning out hundreds of cultures of genetically altered (read mutant) microbes, any or all of which are likely to be able to take up residence in our most vital parts, and any or all of which are likely to be doing something subtly different from our own home-grown variety. Well, so what? Aren't these microbes harmless?
Mycoplasma genitalium may be (it's not clear), but its close relative Mycoplasma pneumoniae is not. It also lives in the human body, and can be triggered into giving us a rather lethal form of pneumonia. So how harmless would a mutant M. genitalium be? Obviously, we have no idea. So what? Aren't these experiments being done in ultra-safe Lassa-virus-type buildings from which no microbe can escape? Probably not, but even if it were so, would you bet the future of the human race on it?
What if mutant M. genitalium microbes escape and spread through the human race? What if, in addition, they release a chemical that makes us all sterile? I can't imagine a cleaner, more efficient, bloodless, foolproof, irreversible way of ridding the Earth of humans. Sometime around the year 2100, the last aging person will die with all the toys in the world (she would have to bury herself). Every other species would be just fine, except those that depended on us (various viruses, bacteria, lice, broccoli and Chihuahuas). The world's ecology could revert to something approaching a natural state for the first time in 50,000 years.
Is this God's doing too? A user-friendly Apocalypse without all the horsemen? Maybe Mycoplasma genitalium was planted long ago as bait, as irresistible to geneticists as mayflies are to trout? Sooner or later, at about the time that human impact on the planet would become intolerable, the trap would snap and bingo! the place is wiped clean of the one species that is wrecking it. This is a bigger and better joke than I thought. So I take it all back: God does have a sense of humor, and She is an environmentalist.
Written and © by RC, December 17, 1999.
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