Dr. Betsey Dexter Dyer is a professor of Biology at Wheaton College, Massachusetts, USA. She received her Ph.D. from Boston University. Among her research interests are symbiosis, evolution of cells, field microbiology and genomics. She is also part of the Genomics Research Group, a student project that she launched in collaboration with Mark LeBlanc, professor of Computer Science. Dr. Dyer has written several books, including
The Modern Scholar: Unseen Diversity: The World of Bacteria (Audiobook), The Origin of Eukaryotic Cells (Benchmark Papers in Systematic and Evolutionary Biology, 9) (1986), Tracing the History of Eukaryotic Cells (1994 – with Robert A. Obar), Explore the World Using Protozoa (1997 – coauthor), A Field Guide to Bacteria (2003) and Perl for Exploring DNA (2007 – with Mark D. LeBlanc).
I recently read about her book “A Field Guide to Bacteria” and wanted to know more about her view on “Bacteriocentrism,” and how one becomes “bacteriocentric.” I was so lucky to be introduced to Dr. Dyer, who was kind enough to accept to be interviewed for Micro Writers, and immediately answered my questions about her book and her student project, Genomics Research Group, via email. So, here I am, sharing with you this very interesting interview.
1. Why did you decide to write the book “A Field Guide to Bacteria”? Field microbiology and symbiosis are among your research interests ; is this one of the reasons that made you dig deeper in bacterial populations and “think like a microbe”?
I first got the idea of a field guide when I was a graduate student and was very fortunate to be on a field microbiology expedition (in Baja California Mexico) with some world famous field microbiologists. I realized at once that a field guide should be written and one of them should write it and probably would! It did not occur to me that I would write it. It took me years to get to the point of being secure enough with my career. First I had to get a PhD, then a job, and then tenure. I also got married and had two children. Finally, about 15 years after that original idea, I realized that I had been accumulating enough information that I should begin to write. And so I did. However, I am still a bit surprised that nobody else wrote it.
I am naturally drawn to tiny things. I got a microscope for a present when I was 11 years old and it transformed some of my views of biology. I found that I loved the microscopic world. But I also like miniatures in general such as tiny furniture and dishes and things in dolls houses. I have in my library at home, some shelves devoted to a doll house and two miniature rooms.
2. What is meant by “becoming bacteriocentric”? And how does this lead to better understanding of the biology of bacteria?
We humans are mostly visual and auditory, the primary senses by which we perceive and analyze the world. It is probably impossible for us to be otherwise. Furthermore, we are gigantic and multicellular and terrestrial in marked contrast to the vast majority of organsims on Earth. Nonetheless, I think it is an excellent exercise for any biologist at least to try bacteriocentricity. The bacterial or microbial world is primarily olfactory and tactile. They are single celled (intimate with their environments), tiny and aquatic. I cannot avoid being anthropocentric but I can at least be more aware of the limitations of my size, habitat, and senses. My goal is to have as much humility as I can manage when I observe the world of microbes.
3. “Many groups of bacteria can be easily identified in the field (or in the refrigerator) without a microscope” and “Bacteria can be seen and smelled”, as a pharmacy student, I want ask how could that be achieved?
Well, do you have the book yet? There are many examples but the basis of all of them is that bacteria, when they are in an appropriate environment, are likely to do quite well: reproducing abundantly, taking in and transforming molecules, sending out wastes. In many cases (surprisingly many) the abundance is on a level perceptible by humans. The field marks just need to be revealed and interpreted. Otherwise, they may be easily overlooked or misunderstood. My first experience with this as a graduate student was being shown the distinctive pigmentations and odors of bacteria in sulfur cycles in Baja California.
4. You have a project with Dr. Mark LeBlanc, professor of Computer Science, called “Wheaton College Genomics Group.” Why did you do such a project for undergraduate students? How did it raise their potential?
One day about ten years ago, Mark asked me if I had any large datasets that his computer science students might analyze in their course on algorithms. It happens that I teach genetics and am fascinated with genomes. At that time, genome sequences were becoming more available at NCBI. I had not realized that it would be so easy to collaborate with a computer scientist. I had lots of questions about genomes and we just started right in with devising some answers. Right now, we are interested in characterizing horizontal transfer events of distantly related bacteria and archaea. There are hundreds of complete microbial genomes at NCBI and most have not been completely analyzed. Therefore, there is plenty for us and our students to do.
We ended up writing a book on the topic because we wee in need of a text that could be used both by biologists and computer scientists.
Tags: A Field Guide to Bacteria, bacteriocentric, bacteriocentrism, Betsey D. Dyer, biologists, computer scientists, field microbiology, Mark LeBlanc, NCBI, Perl, Perl for Exploring DNA, sulfur cycles, symbiosis, Wheaton College Genomics Group