A Walk Through Time

Celebrating Diversity

Fast And Loose

3800 Million Years Ago

Fast bacteria divide, cloning themselves every 20 minutes. In a million divisions, one bacterium may be a mutant. While most mutants die, successful ones quickly clone themselves across the environment.

Bacteria aren't just fast; they're loose. Gene traders and swappers, they do not just create the next generation — they become the next generation. "Horizontal" evolution yields brand-new kinds of beings.

What would happen if human beings could swap ideas as readily as these bacteria swap genes?

In Baja California, billions of phototropic bacteria clone themselves and swap their genes in the warmth of a sunlit salt marsh puddle. With adequate food, water, and space (and no predators!), a single bacterium could generate 2144 individuals in two days (vastly more than the number of human beings who have ever lived) and, in four days, 2266 individuals (greater than the number of atoms physicists estimate to exist in the universe). (Photograph by Lynn Margulis) 

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