The Roundup: The little things that fuel everything

The Year of Science is all about the big stuff: Thousands of students working on thousands of Wikipedia articles, bringing better information to millions of readers. Today we’re going to look at students who focused on the small stuff.

A “Prokaryote” is one of a diverse group of single-cell organisms, once commonly synonymous with “bacteria.” There are millions of species of these prokaryotes on our planet, if not trillions. They’re everywhere from our guts to our skin, from the edge of space to miles into the Earth. Understanding them is an essential part of understanding a wide range of sciences, from genetics to medicine to environmental studies. Their role in breaking down and releasing nutrients for plants has made them essential to life on this planet.

Understanding the many variety of prokaryotes in any given environment is a key piece of understanding that environment. Disrupting a set of interactions between them can have big impacts. But just as importantly, understanding them is crucial to the production of pharmaceuticals and other products.

Dr. Cameron Thrash’s Prokaryotic Diversity course at Louisiana State University (also on Twitter) focuses on these tiny nutrient liberators. They’ve created 15 articles that give anyone who encounters one of these species a brief overview of what’s known about them.

One article illustrates the importance of prokaryotes quite well. In 1942, 40 swimmers complained of a mysterious outbreak of malaise. All had been swimming in lakes near Fort Bragg, and a mysterious rash appeared on them four days later. Researchers came to investigate “Fort Bragg Fever.” It took two years to discover how the pathogen spread, and nine years to identify the offending prokaryotic species as Leptospira noguchii.

These include:

  • Treponema socranskii, which is tied to periodontitis and gingivitis. Students created this article.
  • Azotobacter salinestris, once used in agricultural processes but found to cause birth defects in humans. Likewise, understanding it has also helped to prevent them.
  • Desulfobulbus propionicus can be used as a biocatalyst in microbial fuel cells.
  • Haladaptatus paucihalophilus, which is interesting in its ability to survive in very highand very low salt concentrations. That makes it useful in lab studies.
  • Thermoplasma volcanium, found in various hydrothermal vents.
  • Thermotoga elfii, which helps prevent corrosion in oil pipelines.
  • Macromonas bipunctata, indirectly associated with the discovery of antibiotics in moonmilk (the creamy precipitate found in limestone caves).

This small handful of student work from Thrash’s course tackles prokaryotes in fields such as dentistry, agriculture, health, industry and energy, research science, and geology. These student editors’ work helps people in those fields learn a little bit more about the science behind their work, even if they don’t have experience in biology.

That’s the beauty of the Wikipedia Year of Science. Students who are learning one field contribute that learning to fill in blank spaces, and make the picture more complete in all sorts of ways. The information is accurate, from reliable sources, and reinforces Wikipedia’s value as the web’s go-to place for information.

Thanks to these students, and Dr. Thrash, for helping us understand the tiniest details of our world! If you’d like to get involved in bringing science information to millions of readers through Wikipedia, check out our Wikipedia Year of Science initiative, or send us an e-mail:

Photo: Glass Beach Fort Bragg 2, by Jef Poskanzer – originally posted to Flickr as Glass Beach / wave, CC-BY-2.0.


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