Creating a huge global network connecting billions of individuals might be one of humanity’s greatest achievements to date, but microbes beat us to it by more than three billion years. These tiny single-celled organisms aren’t just responsible for all life on Earth. They also have their own versions of the World Wide Web and the Internet of Things. Here’s how they work.
Much like our own cells, microbes treat pieces of DNA as coded messages. These messages contain information for assembling proteins into molecular machines that can solve specific problems, such as repairing the cell. But microbes don’t just get these messages from their own DNA. They also swallow pieces of DNA from their dead relatives or exchange them with living mates.
These DNA pieces are then incorporated into their genomes, which are like computers overseeing the work of the entire protein machinery. In this way, the tiny microbe is a flexible learning machine that intelligently searches for resources in its environment. If one protein machine doesn’t work, the microbe tries another one. Trial and error solve all the problems.
But microbes are too small to act on their own. Instead, they form societies. Microbes have been living as giant colonies, containing trillions of members, from the dawn of life. These colonies have even left behind mineral structures known as stromatolites. These are microbial metropolises, frozen in time like Pompeii, that provide evidence of life from billions of years ago.