First there was nothing . . . and then there were air bubbles . . . and then there were plaques . . . and then nothing again

By Shrenik Jain

My time so far in phage hunting has been enjoyable.  But like most of my experiences in research, sometimes the day to day activities in the lab become slightly less than captivating . . . especially after the fifth class in a row of streaking.

Were I in a lecture I’d probably have to resort to my total fantasy in order to make class tolerable. But the great part about phage hunting is I can just think about all the things that are going down on a microscopic level.  And then use maybe a little bit of imagination. Actually probably a lot of imagination, but it’s really fun.

First off I’m pretty glad I’m not a bacterium.  Or specifically M. smegmatis.  I don’t care if I get to reproduce once every 20 minutes for the entirety of my life when the entirety of my life left is the next 24 hours before I literally explode and release thousands of pseudo-living parasitic particles to go to town on my offspring/twins/siblings/clones.

What if the M. smegmatis felt emotions like us?  Can you imagine you and thousands of your peers bravely seeking a new world, desperate to escape the tiny confines of your glass tube? And what do you find? You find a lush expanse of fertile agar. You and your peers, flush with the heat of liquid agar, swirl rapidly to encompass the whole horizon, like Spaniards and English pillaging a virgin world.

You’d probably feel fortunate at first but would be oblivious, like the prosperous Venetian merchants who cheated death at the hands of the Mongols and gorged themselves on Asian spices and silk, before docking at Messina and unleashing the scourge of the Black Death on their own homes and families.

Due to factors you can’t comprehend your world falls apart. Where there was once the clones of your conjugation mate, now you only see desolate wasteland. Your prophets tell tales of other worlds, some damned to total extermination of all your kind, but others of massive lawn conjugationfests untouched by this tiny scourge, which slips through your phospholipid bilayer as if it was held together by only London dispersions. All determined by some arbitrary, more evolved power.

I’m hardly an omniscient or omnipotent power as a freshman bumbling around the lab. But what difference does that make to the M. smegmatis? They hardly have a merciful deity. The tiniest slip of a pipette can condemn an entire world, and whether or not they are blessed with a protective parafilm/ozone layer for their planet is beyond their control. Perhaps they were fortunate enough to have a protective film last week, but no more: they can watch their very sky tear in front of them the minute some other, even higher power in their pantheon decides the lab is out of space.

I think I’ll stop here before delving into to the consideration that to a large enough observer we are not so different from M. smegmatis. Nonetheless, it’s obvious I’m having fun and learning, and I look forward to the rest of the semester in the lab.

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