Inside the Inaugural Microbial Olympics

London prepares for the 2012 (human) Olympics. Photo: avail/Flickr

By Jeffrey Marlow

With global attention focusing on London for the Games of the 30th Olympiad, a parallel competition of superlative ability has gone largely unnoticed.

I’m referring, of course, to the Microbial Olympics, a truth-based but (largely) fictional test of microbial abilities published in Nature Reviews Microbiology.

For the contributors, it’s an exercise in extreme – and occasionally cringe-inducing – punnery: Bacillus Bill and Salmonella Sam serve as announcers, and a spherical contestant is said to be “feeling cocc-y.”

A summary of the events and their respective winners:

The Sprint, which rewards the species with the fastest rate of division. E. coli pulls ahead with a doubling time of 17 minutes, but the bacteriophage virus comes out of nowhere to take the gold.

Boxing, in which microbes engage in chemical warfare via antimicrobial molecules. In the final between Pseudomonas aeruginosa and methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, the former is disqualified for the use of “performing-enhancing small molecules,” giving the top prize to the latter.

100 Micrometer Freestyle Swimming, pitting micrometer-sized bacteria propelled by rotating helical flagella against each other. It’s a photo finish as Rhodobacter sphaeroides wins by 0.06 seconds. The race video – which includes a hopelessly lost Vibrio alginolyticus and a slow-but-steady Rhodospirillum rubrum – can be found here.

Javelin, awarding metals to the pathogens able to secrete molecules the furthest from their cells. The plant pathogen Puccinia monoica wins gold with its tricky method of attracting insects to an infected plant to help complete the fungal reproduction cycle.

Pathogen Relay, a mercifully theoretical event in which the rate of transmission between human hosts is scored. The common cold wins with its high transmission rate but low virulence, which allows the human host to remain healthy enough to continue transmission. Chlamydia, the plague, and bird flu are left in the dust.

Diving, a judged event that gives points for “beauty of execution.” The committee crowns Photobacterium phosphoreum the winner for its ability to glow in the dark and brighten up its host organism, a deep-sea fish.

Winter Games Endurance, offering a medal to the most impressive psychrophile. Colwellia psychrerythraea strain 34H wins based on its strength in three categories: coldest growth temperature (-12 °C), lowest-temperature motility (-10 °C), and production of active enzymes (-20 °C).

In a moment of pan-biological camaraderie, the authors express their hopes that the Microbial Olympics will bolster public interest, “either by inspiring the next generation of microbiologists to enter the field or simply by spreading appreciation of the importance of microorganisms, in all shapes and forms, to every aspect of life on Earth.”

Rigorous training is already underway for the 2016 Microbial Olympics.

Editor’s note: Jeff Marlow is a graduate student in Geological and Planetary Sciences at the California Institute of Technology where he studies exotic microbial metabolisms in an attempt to understand the limits of life on Earth and beyond.


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