What If All the Microbes Disappeared?

What If All the Microbes Disappeared?


What would happen if every microbe in the
world just…disappeared. Could we live? Could anything live? And for how long? First, let’s talk about mass extinctions. The first microbes on this planet appeared
billions of years ago. In the long history of life since then, researchers
have estimated using fossil evidence that there have been five major mass extinctions. These extinctions were catastrophic mixes
of geological, biological, and of course on at least one occasion astronomical issues
that, over the often protracted period they occurred, killed off a large percentage of
extant species. The end-Permian extinction, which is considered
to be the largest mass extinction, occurred over 252 million years ago, the result of
volcanic activity that produced greenhouse gases and warmed the planet. But more recently, researchers have identified
another potential culprit: microbes. Specifically: methanogens, a type of methane-producing
archaea whose numbers may have increased as they fed on dying plants and animals, creating
even more methane that warmed the planet further, killing more organisms, producing more food for methanogens A classic positive feedback loop that changed
the planet too fast for many species to cope with. Now, this idea that microbes may have been
involved in the largest mass extinction is a hypothesis, rooted in scientific observation
but still not proven but, as we look at what a world without microbes might be like, remember
that they may have, at least once, done living systems a good deal of damage all on their
own. But a world without them would do far
more damage. With this thought and perhaps our own biases
in mind, the collective scientific understanding of microbes feels a little bit like being
in love. It wasn’t long ago that we didn’t know
they existed. But now, it hard to imagine a world
without them. Now, this has not stopped scientists
from trying to imagine such a world. In 2014, Jack A. Gilbert and Josh D. Neufeld
published a paper in PLOS Biology called Life in a World without Microbes, envisioning a
hypothetical world where in a single moment, all microbes vanish. Their thought experiment uses what we’ve
learned of microbes to take on a belief put forth by Louis Pasteur, that, “Life would
not long remain possible in the absence of microbes.” and that may have been the case then, but we have more technology now. There are many ways to explore
this hypothetical world without microbes, and in their work, Gilbert and Neufeld consider what we might broadly
group into two questions. What would an absence of microbes do to the
world around us? And what would an absence of microbes do to the
world inside of us? Let’s start with that second question: the
internal one. If all microbes, single-celled and multi-celled,
were to vanish, there would be a large number of diseases that would just cease to exist. Now, in this hypothetical, mitochondria and similar
endosymbiotic prokaryotes that have long been integrated into multicellular, eukaryotic
bodies such as our own, are treated not as microbes, but as part of our bodies. If all mitochondria disappeared, do not fear,
you would be dead that very instant. But even without endosymbionts that leaves
many, many microbes inside of us, particularly bacteria in our gut that aid in digestion
and metabolism. It’s unlikely that we’ll ever know for
sure what would happen to our bodies if all of those microbial residents were just suddenly evicted. The examples we can take from various
types of germ-free animals that have been raised since the end of the 19th century suggests
that life, at least inside of us, will still go on—it’s just not clear what that life
would look like for us. We would likely have to rely on synthetic
nutrients to compensate for changes in how our body processes food. Meanwhile, our own physiology might change. We would, for example, be smaller, having access to fewer nutrients. leaving us to wonder what of our body belonged just to us after all. But of course there are many, many microbes, in fact the vast majority of them, existing outside of our bodies as, and a hypothetical microbial banishment would create some clear challenges. You might think that, without the work of
diatoms and other photosynthetic microbes, we’d be at a risk of dying from a lack of
oxygen pretty quickly And yes, it would be an eventual problem. But it turns out there is enough atmospheric
oxygen to sustain life for a pretty long time. Gilbert and Neufeld note this as more of a
centuries-long back-up plan while we can maybe figure something else out. But, if we’re being honest with ourselves, we probably wouldn’t make it that long. There are larger problems. Some bacteria, like Nostoc, convert diatomic
nitrogen in the atmosphere into other nitrogen-containing compounds that plants can actually use. Their disappearance would severely reduce
photosynthesis, and yes, limit the further release of oxygen into the atmosphere, but also,
it would just make it much harder to grow plants which, you will remember, we need for food. Meanwhile, macroscopic decomposers would have
to take on much more of the burden of converting death into new ingredients for life. And we would also feel the loss of other cycles
that rely on microbes, like the processes that move phosphorous across different layers
of life. The interlocking nature of these microbe-based
processes within their environments mirrors our relatively new understanding of how our
microbiome dictates the interplay between microbes and our bodies. In fact, scientists have begun studying what
they call the Earth Microbiome. not just a catalogue of the diversity of microbes
across the planet, but a broader understanding of how the microbial composition is its own dynamic
thing that shapes and responds to the world around it. There is an ongoing conversation about the
possibility that we are somewhere in the midst of a sixth extinction event driven primarily
by our own human actions. The characteristics of this extinction are
much more readily observable on animals and plants than on microbes, but they are an important
piece of that extinction puzzle—both in terms of their future and our own. Many microbes, after all, seem readily capable
of survival—like the trusty tardigrade, the mascot of all microbes who do what we
would all love to do when conditions are bad, they curl up in a protective cyst and lie dormant. The question, if that really is what it will
to take to survive, what will the world look like when they wake up. At the end of “Life in a World Without Microbes,”
Gilbert and Neufeld describe a world where nutrients and resources become increasingly
scarce–a world where we would need to rapidly fill the void left by microbes with manufactured
alternatives designed to fill in cavernous cracks. They argue that we might actually do okay
for a few days, and maybe a small number of humans would manage to last even for centuries. But in the long term, for us humans at least, the
prognosis is bleak. But they also point out that while microbes
play a massively important role in our world right now, there is a hypothetical where
other organisms adapt or evolve to reconfigure those essential niches. Perhaps we would be gone, but life exceeds us. And so does its capacity for invention. And then, we suppose, Earth would just have to get ready for some new species to come along, develop technologies and look into the fossil
record to find what caused our mass extinction, and then make an internet…and then internet
videos about us, and how weird our world was, back when there were microbes. Thank you for coming on this journey with us as we explore the unseen world that surrounds us. And also thank you to all of these people, our patrons on Patreon, who allow us to go on these deep dives and understand more of how much we rely on these little organisms. So various and so delightful. If you want to see more from our Master of Microscopes James Weiss, you can check out Jam and Germs on Instagram And you want to see more from us, here at Journey to the Microcosmos, you can find us at YouTube.com/microcosmos

100 thoughts on “What If All the Microbes Disappeared?”

  1. You tell a great, relaxing, bedtime story hank, nite nite, yawn and tonight i dream of life without microbes….zzzzz

  2. Microbes are possibly my favorite lil creatures in the entire world, cute lil buddy bois.

    Tis all, have a good new years

  3. If all of the microbes disappear then I will have diarrhea for the rest of my life 🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣

  4. STOP THE 5 MASS EXTINCTIONS LIE! IT'S SO COMMONLY CITED BUT THERE ARE MORE THAN 5

    Oxygen Catastrophe

    Snowball Earths extinctions (several in short succession)

    End Ediacaran (not universally accepted, mostly because people don't want to change their preconceived ideas )

    Ordovician – Silurian

    Capitanian extinction (used to be considered part of the Late Devonian extinction, now recognized as separate)

    Latest Devonian (Carboniferous boundary, basically Late Devonian extinction part 2)

    Carboniferous Rainforest Collapse

    Permian – Triassic

    Triassic – Jurassic

    Cretaceous – Paleogene

    Quaternary extinctions (ongoing)

  5. It's a waste of energy to devote so much into idea that in it self is impossible. All microbes disappearing immediately implies that all the life has vanished which obviously wouldn't be good and won't happen anyway. Pointless.

  6. "Developed technologies" the most arrogant term in science!
    The day we think, we can do better than mother nature, is the first they of our extinction.

  7. Yet we can't stop talking about human eukaryotic DNA like it's god! LOL

    Switch that could change the world no?!

  8. Bingo! But I’m not sure everybody understands the consequences (in plural) of such a thing. I mean, Earth will have less live than The Moon has today…
    So you look at you surroundings, you look at yourself… where the hell all this comes from? But you can’t see thought; the elephant is occupying all your view, and is smiling at you!

    So the dynos were extinct some say… Correct. But are not extinct others say… Correct. Now you only see the smile.

    Where are the old kings? You know them. And the kings to be? You know them too. That changes everything… finally: bingo!

  9. Basically, life as we know it requires microbes. Microbes are like the tiny gears in a big machine; take them out and the machine no longer works. Could life ever exist without microbes? 4.5 Billion years of life, death, and evolution say, NO.

  10. I was wondering about plankton – are they part of the microcosmos? And if so, could you please, please make an episode on them? They are this mysterious animal, that we (I assume) heard of since we were kids, because WHALEFOOD – but they are also invisible and everywhere, and probably part of a lot of things I don't know about, apart from being at the bottom of lots of food chains. And WHALEFOOD. I would love to know more about them.

  11. I always wondered how many species have humans made extinct so far? Which types have we affected most? What are the projections, when would the effect be officially named the Anthropic Extinction Event? Which of our activities were the most damaging? And how would life adapt afterwards? You reading this, Hank?

  12. Can you show footage with increasing zoom till microbes are clearly visible (like at the end, but even more) ? 🙂 I think it might be interesting for many to watch

  13. I've got a cold right now due to some microbes taking up residence in my nose. But when nature gives us an illness it also often provides effective remedies like eucalyptus which has antibacterial, anti-fungal and anti-inflammatory properties 🙂

  14. loll, I cant believe hank has been so fully pulled into johns death train. even if we will PROBABLY die in 10.000 years you dont have to say it. its so far away who knows?? and we should be trying to go for whatever percent it is where the species DOES survive! god I miss optimism. (*eh sorry not trying to be overdramatic*) anyway nice vid, sounds like a scifi story

  15. Me: You're like a microbe for me.
    Gf/bf: ???
    Me: It wasn't long ago that I didn't know you existed but now I can't imagine life without you.

  16. ******************Is it good to drink distilled water? ************************red cells may burst but then our bodies create new ones?

  17. This video is giving me a mild existential crisis as I ponder a world without oxygen and realise just how dependent we frail beings are on the earth that sustains us. We prefer to imagine ourselves something more akin to gods because its easier to get on with the job of living that way than being crippled with fears and all kinds of negative thoughts and feelings about existence.

  18. once more… this time with feeling:
    as we (and all living structures) are really just coherent slime mold…
    phhfffftttttt!
    a l l g o n e

  19. This video has an interesting pace : I find each baffling video cuts interlaced with a few selected audio facts creates a good symbiosis for memorisation and comprehension. You guys make learning so cool !
    Happy New Year !!!

  20. The beginning made my digestive tract hurt, then you said we get to keep all our little friends and i was like oh great, i still will probably starve to death.

  21. Before watching, I'd like to say I think life on Earth would end without microbes, IDK how long it would take. Now to watch, and see what You say.

    edit: I'm more convinced as I think about it after watching. NO MORE BIOLOGICAL FIXATION OF NITROGEN = the Earth's ecosystem will collapse. The End. Still not sure on how long it would take, but everything would die.

  22. Well, i screwed up my gut microbiome quite a few times – remember, alcohol is an antibiotic – and it wasn't pleasant…lol

  23. Microcosmos , and my lab Christmas present…a Nikon N-Storm scope.
    Oh. If all microbes disappeared (no sign of that happening), gradually over say a few centuries, we humans would adapt. So would everything else. And like now, there would be some species that would become extinct or drastically be hard to discover. My fear in the lab, is humans developing super-microbes, that will interfere with microbes that have been on, in, and above Earth for millennia. But with the flourishing of old and new bacteria becoming resistant to antibiotics, new…synthetic microbes, could be the solution in a near future pandemic or worse…biological attack.

  24. Maybe if it happened now we'd die.

    But if it happened 100 years or so from now, and we had that long to prepare. Then by that time I have no doubt we'll get access to very advanced genetic engineering.

    Like making plants that can process atmospheric nitrogen themselves or even deconstruct dead organic matter by themselves. Or animals that don't need microbes to help with digestion and producing specific nutrients.

    So I do believe a world without microbes is very possible, with plants and animals being artificially adapted to life without them.

    And honestly I wished I lived in that world, not just for the more advanced tech, but also because microbes are neat to learn about, but I absolutely hate the fact that they exist. And the people that philosophy about whether or not our bodies really belong to us, given how many microbes call it their home. Well screw those people and screw those microbes, my body is my body and all they are are pests that need to be killed.

    (I'm not gonna respond to replies because I'm not gonna get into another useless internet argument.)

  25. If microbes disappeared, my mom would explode with glee and tell everyone how she helped accomplish this. Then as we all die of sterile diarrhea, would blame our extinction solely on gluten.

  26. Looking for low cost digital microscope/ microscope add on with digital imaging of micrography feature. Location: India. Any suggestions welcome.

  27. With the help of the video I’ve just realized that it’s not us we should be protecting from the global warming.
    Hack, that changes it all, we can deal with a few degrees diff, but what if some bacteria can’t ?

  28. Was trying so hard to figure out what this guys accent was, assumed it was either Canadian or North American, but as a European, it's kinda hard to tell which

    Noticed he sounded a lot like Hank Green, so tried to figure out where Hank Green came from before I realised that's literally who it was speaking

    I still don't know what his accent is lmao

  29. If we cannot rapidly and safely scale up the production of synthetic ethanol, then the loss of fermentation will be time to go away for me.

  30. What if you treat planet earth as one unicellular organism? I think predictive models would work better under that assumption.

  31. We are certainly not living in the middle of a new extinction event. The Earth is greening like crazy, deserts are disappearing, and CO2 levels are getting closer to when most of the plant and animal life we know and love managed to evolve. We're at the start of a boom of new species and more life on Earth than we as species have ever seen.

  32. No beer, no wine, no cheese, no coffee, no tea, no tobacco… yes they all undergo fermentation in their production process. They would be gone.

  33. Short answer: No.

    Long answer: Nooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo.

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