Look at this scanning electron micrograph. No -- really look at it. Take a few minutes.
It's an image obtained by a graduate student in the lab - an image of a pure culture of one bacterial species. The rod-shaped organism in the center of the micrograph is a bacterium, a Burkholderia vietnamiensis species related to G4, a microorganism that is studied for all sorts of reasons: it is found in the lungs of individuals with cystic fibrosis (along with Pseudomonas aeruginosa), it is able to biodegrade trichloroethylene, and it exhibits remarkable metabolic versatility - that is, it can grow on alot of different carbon substrates and under a wide range of environmental conditions.
But back to the micrograph. Hopefully looking at this image will make you rethink whatever you might have thought about a microbial cell - which sounds like something that is isolated, not complicated -- non-communicative. You have the bacterial cell(s) - but you also have appendanges that connect the cells (most likely pili) and small ball-like structures (most likely membrane vesicles or 'blebs'). This micrograph only represents the physical infrastructure of this microorganism - and ignores the chemical interactions (such as cell-cell communication, referred to as quorum sensing) that might be occurring. While quite a bit is known about pili, and their role in anchoring cells to surfaces, in biofilm formation, and in transferring genetic material - less is known about membrane vesicles. They 'bleb' off of the membranes of many Gram-negative bacteria - and have been shown in Burkholderia cepacia (and other Gram-negative bacteria) to contain virulence factors. So, think of these structures as a convenient toxin-delivery system for the microorganism.
So yesterday started with a discussion at a downtown coffee shop with a colleague about approaches to characterizing membrane vesicles - my student has developed several interesting theories regarding these structures and their environmental significance - and this conversation drifted, as discussions often do, into possibilities of the different ways that this microorganism uses these structures to broaden it's effectiveness, interesting ways to communicate with other prokaryotic or eukaryotic cells. Later in the day, I listened to a panel discussion on 'Communicating Science' - so in essence, my day started with a discussion about how a microorganism might communicate and ended with a discussion on how scientists' (should) communicate.
The panel was interesting - it consisted of Dan Conover (Post and Courier, Xark, and Conover on Media), Peter deFur (Virginia Commonwealth University, info here), and Bud Ward [NOAA, yes - this (and this) Bud Ward]. Each of the panelists spoke for a bit - followed by questions from the audience. I have many lingering thoughts about the discussion (too many thoughts to coherently write about this morning) - but one point did make me pause a bit (perhaps even squirm) as I sat in my chair listening - and it was deFur's use of the word certainty. He felt that scientists need to start speaking with more certainty - something that, as a scientist, we often don't do - and upon thinking why that is for me personally, I realized that it is because our science is constantly evolving - new findings, new theories, new approaches that uncover new information - in other words, what we know is constantly changing, and what we know as a research group this morning is different than what we will know tomorrow morning. Therefore, our level of certainty, or ability to be certain, is always changing, is always dependent on where we're 'at' in the scientific process.
I agree with deFur in a sense - I feel that I need to discuss some of the lab's research with a more certain language. There are some things that we are relatively (see, even now I include a mild disclaimer!) certain about - we know how our microorganisms of study grow under certain conditions, we know the proteins that are present under certain conditions - we are certain about some things. But where much of our knowledge resides is in the accumulation of knowledge after studying a system - an accumulation of observations that allow us to infer, with some degree of certainty, additional information. The scientist will base the future direction of their research on this information - a direction that should have a high probability of being fruitful (aka informative) - although I personally would hesitate to define 'high probability'. We win some, we lose some - some directions prove remarkably rewarding, others - a painful dead end. My student's evolving theory about the role of membrane vesicles in mediating metal toxicity in his microorganism would be a very rewarding theory to prove - it would illuminate a new mechanism of microbial metal resistance. (Now, the fact that I have paused for several minutes after writing the previous sentence brings up another point - something that I won't get into today - about fears of being scientifically 'scooped' while communicating science openly). Regardless, we approach each project in the laboratory with different levels of certainty - based on the amount of information and experience we have going into each new project - based on the complexity of the question and, of course, our interest and investment (with respect to both time and money) in the outcome. Our scientific certainty is constantly changing.
Which made me think yesterday, while listening to the panel, that much of the global warming "debate" (used figuratively here - I personally think that the debate is long over) could be due more to awkward issues related to uncertainty, rather than on the science itself. Yesterday, the Summary for Policy Makers was released by the IPCC - the approved summary - and I couldn't help but think that what the public is following is the change in certainty - or the impression of certainty - and since global climate change is filled with uncertainties (with respect to extent alone) many who are frustrated (= confused) with the whole global warming 'thing' are more frustrated with the concept of scientific uncertainty - and that perhaps, as scientists, we need to get better at explaining what uncertainty (or certainty) means when we discuss our work. We need to communicate that our level of certainty is always changing - and that this change is a natural part of the scientific process.
The other thing that one of the panelists said was that scientists need to learn to be brief. Oops.