Stephen Fry: where would be the best place to discover an entirely new species?
Alan Davies: the Amazon rainforest (klaxon)
No as Stephen Fry pointed out the Amazon rainforest is not the best place to discover a new species. That honour belongs to your own garden (anyone’s garden that is). The diversity of life in an ordinary suburban garden is such that Jennifer Owen in 1971 did a study of the insects in her garden in Leicester and found 533 different species of wasps 15 of which had never been recorded in Britain before and 4 of which were completely new to science.
Wasps though are just multicellular life. To give you an idea of how unknown bacteria and other unicellular life forms are 2 Norwegian scientists Jostein Goksoyr and Vigdis Torsvik took a gram of soil from a forest near their lab in Bergen examined it very thoroughly and found 4-5 thousand new species of bacteria then they proceeded to do the same with a sample from a coastal area a few km away and found 4-5 thousand different species of bacteria.
However participants in the SEA phages programme search for something else altogether the even smaller viruses infecting these bacteria. A virus is a strange entity in essence a piece of DNA surrounded by a protein which can attach to a cell and “reprogram” it to produce more viruses. It is so small that even with most microscopes you won’t be able to see one. The Scale of the Universe website can give you an idea just how small you should check it out it has a lot of interesting things. What I might find just as interesting is whether a virus is actually alive… that discussion can wait for another blog though.
Even if a virus is not alive you may be surprised to learn that it can be very useful and not just for terrorists intending on making an epidemic like you might see in an action movie. Phage therapy is the practise of treating a bacterial infection with a bacteriophage (virus) that will infect the bacteria. It may be another surprise to know that bacteria can themselves get sick (I don’t think I ever even considered the idea before reading about it) but it does happen.
In any case phage therapy has been suggested as a way of treating bacterial infections especially those that have become immune to antibiotics. In fact this form of treatment has already been used in parts of Eastern Europe since the 1940s. Several universities include a course discovering and studying bacteriophages. Massey University, Albany campus is one of these. The phages discovered by their class this year may one day provide a preventative treatment for tuberculosis or leprosy ( although the later is thought of as a thing of the past it still does exist).
Most of these are found in the gardens of scientists and other equally mundane locations. So if you don’t think there is anything interesting in your garden then I think maybe you should look harder.