Use the force, bacteria

A couple of years ago, Australian postdoc Nate Lo was working at the University of Milan, looking for human pathogens in the tick species Ixodes ricinus, the main vector for Lyme disease. It was all routine until the day his PCR screening protocol revealed a novel 16S rRNA sequence. When his team took a tick apart to look for the new bug, they found it in the ovaries. And, when they looked closely at electron micrographs of infected ovarian tissues, they could see that the microbes w

By Stephen Pincock | December 1, 2006

A couple of years ago, Australian postdoc Nate Lo was working at the University of Milan, looking for human pathogens in the tick species Ixodes ricinus, the main vector for Lyme disease. It was all routine until the day his PCR screening protocol revealed a novel 16S rRNA sequence. When his team took a tick apart to look for the new bug, they found it in the ovaries. And, when they looked closely at electron micrographs of infected ovarian tissues, they could see that the microbes were intracellular - living not in the cytoplasm of tick ova, but within their mitochondria.

"We'd never seen anything like this before," Lo says, as he opens the image files on his laptop on a rainy afternoon in Sydney. "They seem to get in between the inner and outer mitochondrial membranes and eat the mitochondria up. In the end you've just got this empty sack."

"It's a very novel observation," says Scott O'Neill, a specialist in invertebrate endosymbionts and head of the School of Integrative Science at the University of Queensland, who wasn't involved in the research. O'Neill, whose recent work has focused on the bacterium Wolbachia, says he wasn't aware of any other bacteria that live inside mitochondria. "It's pretty surprising to see a bacterial species living inside the mitochondrion, which itself was a bacterium," he says. "I think it is significant." Bill Ballard, a mitochondrial specialist from the University of New South Wales, agrees. "This is, as far as I know, the first [bacterium] that actually infects within the mitochondria," he says. "It's a pretty cool paper."

Lo's newly found organism doesn't seem to have any negative effects on the ticks. "About half the mitochondria don't get infected," he says, "so perhaps they are only destroying old ones. We don't really know what's going on."

Lo moved to his current post at the University of Sydney, and then wrote to scientists across Europe, Russia, North Africa, and the Middle East, asking them to send ticks for him to screen. Sure enough, he found his bugs, nestled into the ovaries of 100% of female ticks.

Soon, Lo and his colleagues began looking for a name for their new genus, which proved easier said than done. The morphology of the organism didn't present any immediate clues, and there weren't any eminent tick bacterium researchers in whose honor it could be named.

So Lo started surfing the Web, looking for ideas and finding nothing until one link took him to a page on the Wikipedia Web site describing midichlorians. He discovered that George Lucas had invented these creatures while dreaming up his Star Wars movies. The mysterious intracellular organisms apparently reside within the cells of almost all living things and communicate with the Force.

"I quite liked the earlier Star Wars movies, but I'd never heard of these midichlorians before," Lo explains. Although he's not what you'd call a Star Wars fanatic, Lo began thinking perhaps he should name his real-life organism after the imaginary ones. After all, he says, "Art is often imitating science, but it doesn't often go the other way."

In May of this year, Lo and his colleagues submitted a paper to the International Journal of Systematic and Evolutionary Microbiology suggesting that their new species be called Midichloria mitochondrii. They crossed their fingers and waited for the publishing process to take its course.

Meanwhile, one of Lo's coauthors started to get a little nervous. Weren't midichlorians the intellectual property of George Lucas? Might he sue? While the paper was out for review, Lo wrote to Lucas and sought his permission. "I was really praying he wouldn't say no," Lo says. Lucas' assistant wrote back graciously to say that George was fine with the whole thing, and on June 20, the journal accepted the paper. "One reviewer was very negative about the name, but fortunately the editor was fairly open-minded," Lo says.

The journal published the paper early last month. It turns out that Lo and his colleagues had submitted their suggestion just before the well-known French rickettsia expert, Didier Raoult, had proposed the name Nicolleia massiliensis. "As far as we know it's the first species to be formally named after anything in the entertainment industry," Lo says. "There's plenty of science in Star Wars but not enough Star Wars in science as far as I'm concerned."


Avatar of: Yuvisa Muñoz

Yuvisa Muñoz

Posts: 1

December 5, 2006

Me gusto mucho este artículo y queria compartirlo con ustedes.\nsaludos \nYuvisa
Avatar of: Rev. DCM

Rev. DCM

Posts: 3

January 3, 2007

I would have been more impressed if they used Farandolae since Madeleine L'Engle had published that idea [1973] before Lucas used it [not till ?99? even if his 1st film was ?77?]. \n Eh, maybe when find the next one. \n Lucas is a good tale-smith but never an original-idea man; he just wove together bits taken from Zen philosophy etcetera and older Sci-Fi greats like E.E. ?Doc? Smith. \n Also the her story fits the bacteria better in some ways
Avatar of: Alex O

Alex O'Neal

Posts: 8

January 3, 2007

I'm with the Rev. DCM, who points out L'Engle's farandolae, which live in mitochondria and sometimes go bad, causing illness. \n\nAlso, other entertainment sources have been co-opted by science. I was surprised when I saw the Smithsonian refers to the end of a Stegosaurus' tail as a "thagomizer," a term Gary Larson coined (in the cartoon it was used to honor of the dead Thag :-). This is apparently in common use now in paleontology. And New Scientist points out that everyone from Tolkien to Monty Python has contributed to scientific names. From New Scientist:\n\nCarpenter has even turned his terminological talents to naming new dinosaur species. He tagged one early predator gojirasaurus after Gojira, the original Japanese name of the monster we know as Godzilla, because it was a giant for its time. He is not alone. Jenny Clack of Cambridge University gave the name Eucritta melanolimnetes to the fossil of an early salamander-like creature that had lived in a swamp, because it is Greek for "The Creature from the Black Lagoon". Leigh Van Valen of the University of Chicago took the names of 20 fossil mammals from J. R. R. Tolkein's books. A 4-metre-long fossil Australian snake was named Montypythonoides. Two insects have been named after Gary Larson, a louse called "Strigiphilus garylarsoni" and a beetle named "Garylarsonus".

January 10, 2007

Indeed, I am all for it but please, something with more taste and quality than the childish predictability of the Star Wars saga- among the worse notorious Hollywood products of the last 40 years.
Avatar of: mike


Posts: 1

January 10, 2007

Whether or not we like it or not, Star Wars is synonymous with pop-culture like Coke and McDonalds. It has become iconic. Toni Morrison (The Great Nobel Prize winning novelist) said, ?Everything there is to write has been written. It is how you write it that matters.? George Lucas never tried to hide the fact that he borrowed from mythologies and Saturday serials. It was how he wrote it that mattered. The movie redefined Hollywood, and in many cases, pop-culture. One may not feel as though he was original in his story writing, but he pretty much invented every special effect we see today, was a genius in thinking up new technologies and characters and he has been copied and re-copied by many film makers since. Surely, he deserves to be honored just as much (probably more than) Garry Larson and Monty Python (see above). I believe, if one were to ask Mr. Lucas if he thinks he is a scientist, he would laugh, but I think it is nice to pay him homage. Also, there is something to be said about the common layperson?s ability to identify with scientific names which can be quite confusing and unnecessarily complicated. Not only does this name make sense as they effect cells in a similar way to Lucas? version, but it [the name] also would be instantly recognizable to millions of people across the world.
Avatar of: diana deriggs

diana deriggs

Posts: 1

January 12, 2007

i'm happy that lucas, larson, l'engel, etc live in a time when their accomplishments can be honored in a variety of ways while they live, that geek-honor is important, desired, and recognized, and snittiness over the "childish" source of a name can be pretty much ignored and/or become a source of mirth. hooray for progress, and thank goodness midichlorians aren't as stupid as qui-gon jinn made them sound in TPM! ;)
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 1

August 20, 2010

So believe it or not but I think I might be some evidence to support yours and Lucas's theory. Of course I won't know untill tomorrow when I go for blood tests to rule out a lyme infection. \n My opinion(before closer post Dune study of star wars) was that I was being assualted by phantasmic entities('aliens', Dust, 'the angles of deep space'(later recognizing the allusion in star wars, I got the idea from steely dan indirectly, though admittedly I had seen the phantom menace when I was Anakin's age) which somehow influenced my purchase of Dune by Frank Herbert. Subsequent thoughts and torments lead me to believe it was Force sensitivity. After reading of the orbalisks on Darth Bane I considered the theory that a parasite may contribute to a being's Force power- I also am faced with many known symptoms of Lyme disease and recently set up a doctors appointment to remedy that. Then I stumbled on this business of the midiclorians in the mitocondria, ok, and what do you know.. of course Force sensitivity is from a tick bite. I should have known!

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