More on Mutualism

Sweet Potato Whiteflies (public domain image)
I write and speak a lot about mutualism (see here, here, here, here, and here, for example). Not only do I find it to be incredibly fascinating, but I also think it is a clear indication that the living things we see around us have been designed. Indeed, the various ways in which two or more organisms work together to survive are often so intricate and precise it seems crystal clear to me that these mutualistic partners were made for each other.

One of the very common types of mutualism you see in creation involves microorganisms inhabiting and helping plants, animals, and people. As I mentioned in a previous post, for example, our bodies are teeming with microorganisms, and without them, we would not be nearly as healthy. Animals and plants also harbor an amazing variety of microorganisms, which help them do such diverse things as digest cellulose (in the case of termites) and resist heat (in the case of panic grass). Well, I recently came across yet another example of mutualism between an animal and a microorganism, and it adds yet another level of complexity to the process.

In a recent Science article, Anna G. Himler and her colleagues report on the mutualism that exists between sweet potato whiteflies (pictured above) and a bacteria from genus Rickettsia. They found that whiteflies infected with these bacteria were more likely to survive into adulthood than those that were not infected. In addition, the infected whiteflies developed into adults faster than uninfected whiteflies. Thus, the bacteria clearly do something to make the whiteflies healthier.1

How do the bacteria accomplish this? The researchers aren’t really sure. It might be that the bacteria manipulate the plants that the whiteflies eat, making it easier for the whiteflies to get at the nutrition they need. The bacteria also might help the whiteflies better digest their food, or they might help the whiteflies stave off infections from disease-causing organisms. Perhaps future studies will determine the precise way the bacteria help the whiteflies.

What I found most interesting about the study, however, was the other finding: infected whiteflies produced more daughters than uninfected whiteflies! In other words, not only are the bacteria doing something to make the whiteflies healthier, they are also manipulating the whiteflies’ reproductive process so as to produce a higher proportion of females.

Why would the bacteria do this? The answer to that is simple. As Sciencedaily reports:2

…the bacteria are transmitted only through the maternal lineage (from mother to offspring). Therefore, it is beneficial for them to make sure more female than male whiteflies are born.

So whatever they are doing to manipulate the reproductive processes of the whiteflies is aimed at increasing their ability to infect new hosts.

I find this fascinating. The reproductive process is incredibly complex, and yet these “simple” bacteria have figured out a way to manipulate it without destroying it. I can’t even manipulate my car’s engine without destroying it, but these simple bacteria can “lift the hood” on the whiteflies’ reproduction process (which is far more complex than a car) and “tinker” with it to produce an outcome that is more beneficial for them!

The more we study God’s creation, the more I am awed by it.


1. Anna G. Himler, et al., “Rapid Spread of a Bacterial Symbiont in an Invasive Whitefly Is Driven by Fitness Benefits and Female Bias,” Science 332:254-256, 2011.
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2. Anna G. Himler, et al., “Rapid Spread of a Bacterial Symbiont in an Invasive Whitefly Is Driven by Fitness Benefits and Female Bias,” Sciencedaily, 2011.
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2 thoughts on “More on Mutualism”

  1. Dear Dr. Jay,
    Hi! My name is Daniel. I am 14 and I recently was in a discussion with a Biology professor at Gordon College in Ma. We had a very pleasant discussion until it turned to Genesis. I have grown up on the Apologia textbooks and I love all of them!
    Anyway, the professor told me that he believed that God created the big bang and the first cell. God then stepped back and let natural selection do its thing until we have humans. Every time I tried to bring light to the extreme unlikeliness of all of the factors that play into his theory, he would just say, “Well that is where God steps in…” I would talk about the assumptions made with the various dating methods and he would respond the same way. I would talk about mutations, cell DNA, and the geological column and I would get the same answer. We were going around in circles and I got frustrated until he had to go correct papers.
    How should I approach this belief? I don’t know how to talk to someone who has this train of thought. Do you have any tips or suggestions for what I could say? For future reference, it would be nice if I could have some quick facts to pull out.
    Thank you!
    Daniel Gray

    1. Hi Daniel. Thanks for your comment. First, I would be thankful that the professor is at least reasonable enough to see that evolution is impossible from a naturalistic standpoint. There are a lot of professors who won’t even acknowledge that much, because they are so committed to the concept of naturalism. Thus, at least this professor is closer to the truth than many others!

      Second, I would suggest that you are thinking about this the wrong way. Your job isn’t to refute his ideas. Indeed, it would be hard to if he keeps insisting that any impossible step in evolution is taken care of by God. Instead, your job is to present the case for creation as honestly and completely as you can. You can show him how much more reasonable it is to believe in creation instead of just referring to God everything there is something he cannot explain. However, whether or not he sees that is up to him, not you.

      Third, there is no way I can give you some “quick facts” to pull out in talking with him. What has convinced him about theistic evolution is probably not what has convinced others. Thus, you need to talk with him openly and honestly, sharing your ideas with him and allowing him to share his ideas with you. Over time, you might end up seeing what has convinced him of his beliefs, and then you might be able to find a way to convince him of the truth. Also, the way we effectively communicate ideas is to learn them ourselves. If I just gave you some “quick facts” to pull out, you would not be able to defend them if he started attacking them. He needs to be talking to you, not to me.

      I can, however, give you one overall idea. When I talk with theistic evolutionists, I try to stress the fact that if God did create by evolution, He covered His tracks really well. After all, there is very little evidence supporting the idea of evolution from one kind of creature to another, and there is a lot of evidence against it. If you choose to believe that God created that way, then, you have to choose to believe that He left little evidence behind. That’s a hard pill for me to swallow, especially because I am a scientist.

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