The cells and molecules we use to recognize these invaders are unquestionably amazing. What’s perhaps most amazing is that the immune system can learn. When a new pathogen turns up, our immune cells undergo a kind of interior version of natural selection. Over the course of several cell divisions, new variants emerge that do a better and better job of recognizing the newcomer. Our bodies can then mount a powerful, focused attack on, say, a particular strain of the flu. And once the immune system learns how to recognize that new enemy, it can store that memory away, enabling it to attack the same pathogen years later.
This is the sort of thing that people often have in mind when they refer to us as a “higher” form of life, and bacteria and viruses as a “lower” form. Bacteria are just simple individual cells. They’re not multicellular organisms that can dedicate billions of cells to making antibodies, spewing poisons, and carrying out the many other tasks required for an immune system to work. Viruses–forget about it–they’re just protein shells that package a few genes, which they insert into a host cell.
But the higher/lower dichotomy is a blinkered way to look at life. If you can’t believe that bacteria can have an immune system, then you will miss the clues that they, in fact, have one. And the evidence is overwhelming.
Bacteria, after all, live in the same parasite-riddled world as we do. They may not get infected by the same pathogens that infect us, but they are continually hounded by viruses. A microbe that can defend itself against a virus will have a huge edge in the evolutionary race against its fellow microbes.
The threat of viruses has driven the evolution of some pretty impressive defenses. Bacteria make enzymes that lock onto certain, short sequences of DNA and slice them apart. When a virus injects its genes, these so-called restriction enzymes shred them into genetic confetti, so that they can’t take over the cell.