Bacteria That Could Pass As X-Men

12/16/2011 02:02 pm ET

By S.E. Gould

1) The Blob

Like many of the X-men, the Blob has gone through several incarnations of character but the one main continuous feature is that he's big. That's pretty much it. The size gives him supernatural strength, the ability to be 'immovable' (although you could probably shift him with a few tanks if it came to it) and occasionally he has his very own gravitational field. His name is usually Fred Dukes.

The Bacteria: Thiomargarita namibiensis

Thiomargarita means "sulphur pearl" and this bacteria is a gram-negative little beasty found in the oceans. It can grow up to 0.75 mm wide, which may not sound much compared to the bulk of Freddy Dukes, but bear in mind that even at his height the blob was no more than 10X bigger than the average person. Thiomargarita is over one million times larger than the majority of bacteria. Although it can drift around on the tides, it has no way of propelling itself around, which means that once it stops it's pretty immovable as well.

The reason most bacteria don't grow this large is because they rely on diffusion to get nutrients inside the cell, and 0.75mm is a very large distance in terms of diffusion times. In most bacteria, the inside of the cell would starve. Thiomargarita survives by having lots of large vacuoles which are filled with nutrients. These vacuoles are also what help to make it larger; they act as a nutrient-holding network inside the cell.

2) Magneto

Magneto is one of the Big Bad of the X-men. His mutation allows him to manipulate metal and not necessarily magnetic metal either (that sort of varies with the plotline). Any metal he comes into contact with he can bend, shape and distort. He can manipulate bullets, twist up helicopters and in one memorable movie scene pull all of the iron out of a guys body through his torso.

The bacteria: Magnetosome-containing bacteria

I've written about this once before, and will in all likelihood cover it again sometime, but there are some bacteria that contain little organelles called "magnetosomes". These particles contain magnetite crystals which although they don't allow bacteria to attract metal, they can act like little compasses, which means the bacteria can all line up in the direction of the earth's geomagnetic field.

Several species of bacteria are also capable of eating metal, including Halomonas titanicae which was found working it's way through the remains of the titanic. There aren't yet any bacteria that can make someone’s blood come flying out of their chest, but the Ebola virus comes pretty close.

3) Toad

Toad's main mutational power is "being a bit like a Toad" so it's not surprising that he's gone through several different incarnations as the comics change and evolve. Since his original creation as a bug-eyed Renfield-like lackey he's been an English punk in Ultimate X-men, a strange bald Shakespearian actor in Age of Apocalypse to finally being played by Ray Parks in the film. His powers vary; while he usually keeps the leaping ability and long tongue he can also occasionally spit slime, excrete slime, and stick to walls. Sometimes he is given the ability to speak to frogs, or to be really good with computers.

The bacteria: Thiobacillus ferrooxidans, leptospirillum ferrooxidans

Both of the above are iron-bacteria that live in stagnant water. They smell bad, they're slimy, and they're quite hard to get rid of once they establish themselves in a water-pipe.

It isn't so much the bacteria themselves that are slimy, but the remains of the things they eat. In order to live and grow they oxidise dissolved iron in the water, producing ferric oxide. As ferric oxide is insoluble, it hangs around as a sort of brown gelatinous slime that gets stuck in the water and stains everything it comes into contact with. As the bacteria spread, they leave behind them a trail of brown slimy stuff that can build up inside pipes and plumbing.

It's a bit of a stretch, but it's Toad-like enough, and Toad is my favourite X-men so I wasn't about to leave him out.

4) Multiple Man

Multiple Man's power is that he can replicate himself, splitting his body into two or more identical copies in clear violation of the laws of conservation of mass. When he wants to get rid of these extra bits he can sort of return them to his body, reforming as one person. It's strongly suggested that he remains in control of all the extra multiple men as well, one of them can't go off and (say) rob a bank without him controlling it.

The bacteria: Mycobacterium

Bacteria are the masters of dividing quickly and unlike multiple man, they aren't constrained by how many copies they can produce. Mycobacterium tuberculosis is one of the fastest dividing bacteria in the world, splitting into two once every 15-20 minutes. While this might be slower than multiple man can manage, the end results are far more spectacular:

For those that can't get the sound, that's five thousand billion billion bacteria produced in one day, just from a single dividing cell. (link to video on youtube)

5) Berzerker

Berzerker is one of the lesser known X-men having appeared in only one of the comics. He did, however, make it onto two of the animated series (X-men: Evolution, the one where everyone is a teenager, and Wolverine and the X-men, which I've never seen). His power involves the manipulation of electrical energy; he can throw balls of electricity at people, convert his body into raw electricity, and change the channels on the TV without needing a remote.

The bacteria: Geobacter

I covered the amazing powers of Geobacter in my first ever post on this blog, but it's well worth reiterating because they are awesome. Geobacter might not be able to shoot balls of lightning at people, but they can certainly run a current through themselves, and more excitingly, they can run an electrical current up through a whole column of bacteria, essentially converting a chain of bacteria into a piece of electrical wiring.

The electrons are needed for the redox reactions that all organisms need to carry out to survive. By picking up electrons from the mud, and then transferring them up through pili to the surface the bacteria create an electrical current. You can read more about it on the old post.

6) Mystique

Raven Darkholme, aka Mystique. In the film she's naked and blue with strategically placed scales. In the comics she's still blue but wears a little black two-piece for dignity. Head (or second in command depending on what universe you're in) of the brotherhood of evil mutants, her power is the ability to change form, to shape-shift into the features of another person.

The microorganism: Trypanosoma Brucei

I've cheated here a little. T. brucei isn't actually a bacteria, instead it's a single-celled protist, one of those organisms which are two large and structured to be a bacterium, but too weird to properly be a eukaryote.

T. brucei causes sleeping sickness, and has a fairly complex lifecycle involving humans and tsetse flies. Once inside the human it travels around in the blood, and can occasionally make its home inside various organs. Floating around in the bloodstream, however, is dangerous as it won't be long before part of the human immune system will recognise the intruder and start to rally a force to attack it.

The T. brucei deals with this by periodically changing its skin. Like Mystique, it can change form so that by the time the immune system gets back all ready to attack the recognisable intruder the intruder is no longer recognisable. The outer surface of the T. brucei is covered with a molecule called VSG (variable surface glycoprotein) and the T. brucei genome contains the information for an entire archive of VSGs, with only one being expressed at any one time. By switching to a new VSG, the T. brucei can remain hidden inside the body, constantly changing form and escaping capture.

Source for fig. 1, NASA image in the public domain.
Ref. for fig 2: Komeili, A. (2006). Magnetosomes Are Cell Membrane Invaginations Organized by the Actin-Like Protein MamK Science, 311 (5758), 242-245 DOI: 10.1126/science.1123231
Source for fig. 3 – all rights released by the NH estuaries project.

About the Author: A biochemist with a love of microbiology, the Lab Rat enjoys exploring, reading about and writing about bacteria. She is currently in the process of applying for a PhD in order to do study the manipulation of bacteria through synthetic biology. Follow on Twitter @labratting.


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