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No. 68: Mar-Apr 1990

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Magnetic bacteria in the soil and who knows where else?

It is already well-established that saltand fresh-water sediments harbor bacteria that synthesize grains of magnetite - presumably for the purpose of sensing the ambient magnetic field and orienting themselves. Similar bacteria have recently been discovered living in ordinary soil in Bavaria. It is near-certain that they will now be found just about everywhere. J.W.E. Fassbinder et al, who reported the Bavarian bacteria, conclude their Abstract with: "We suggest that the magnetic bacteria and their magnetofossils can contribute to the magnetic properties of soils."

(Fassbinder, Jorg W.E., et al; "Occurrence of Magnetic Bacteria in Soil." Nature, 343:161, 1990.)

Comment. It is easy to reach great heights of speculation given the facts that: (1) magnetic bacteria exist; (2) bacteria in general are exceedingly abundant; and (3) bacteria are found deep inside the earth's crust and, seemingly, just about anywhere one cares to look. Now, let's see how ridiculous one can get:

  1. Magnetic bacteria and/or their fossils contribute heavily to the magnetic properties of sedimentary rocks and unlithified sediments, such as deep-sea sediments. In fact, magnetostratigraphy and paleomagnetism in general may be based upon bioartifacts and be suspect.

  2. Magnetic bacteria and/or their fossils are present in such immense numbers deep in the crust that they contribute significantly to the earth's magnetic field. They "might" even be responsible for most of it, including its his torical behavior.

  3. Magnetic bacteria, as agents of Gaia, actually constructed the earth's magnetic field for the specific purpose of erecting a shield against space radiation, and thereby allowing the development of more complex life forms on the planet's surface.

Imagine the consequences if any one of the above speculations is even close to the mark!

From Science Frontiers #68, MAR-APR 1990. � 1990-2000 William R. Corliss