Intimate Strangers: Unseen Life on Earth is available on home video by calling 800-423-1212. To order videos for educational use only, please call 1-800-LEARNER (U.S. and Canada).
Episode One: Tree
INTIMATE STRANGERS: UNSEEN LIFE ON EARTH premieres with a search for the very roots of the family Tree of Life. The program begins with a look back at the Earth's distant past and how scientists believe microbial life evolved over the past 3.8 billion years. It returns to the present with a voyage to a steam-shrouded volcanic island off the coast of Italy where a German microbiologist searches for the modern relatives of Earth's earliest microbial life forms. The story then recounts the monumental, decade-long effort of one scientist who used genetic information to redraw the Tree of Life and shake up long-established notions about how life forms are related. This new tree offers a much clearer view of the evolutionary processes that shaped modern life. A scientist from Jamaica explains her astounding discovery of genetic mixing and matching among life forms in different branches of this new tree, further helping us retrace life's development. The hour-long program helps viewers understand how all living things today, from bacteria to blue whales, are related and why this knowledge is valuable, both practically and philosophically. We humans are not a species apart, but an integral facet of a biological continuum.
Episode Two: Keepers
of the Biosphere
The second segment of INTIMATE STRANGERS: UNSEEN LIFE ON EARTH opens with a scientific mystery: why did the much-ballyhooed Biosphere 2 fail? The giant glass and steel structure was to be self-sustaining, but soon after it was sealed off, the oxygen level began to drop and species began slowly to disappear. Scientists discovered that the answer lies in part with microbes. The Biosphere's designers had failed to recognize that the planet's tiniest organisms played such an essential role in the complex ecosystems they created. If microbes play such an essential role in a small environment like Biosphere 2, do they do the same for a bigger one -- a forest, a continent, a planet? Scientists seek answers in a lush Costa Rican rain forest and in the oceans. Their discoveries tell us that in the web of life, microbes provide the wiring. They regulate earth's environment down to its very temperature; indeed, they regulate the conditions necessary for life itself. Could what happened in Biosphere 2 happen in Biosphere 1, the earth? The failed experiment in Biosphere 2 provides a stunning reminder of the need to understand unseen life on our planet. Microbes, not man, are the true masters of earth's balance.
Dangerous Friends, Friendly Enemies
The third episode of INTIMATE STRANGERS: UNSEEN LIFE ON EARTH looks at the remarkable interaction between microbes and the humans they call home. In the American Southwest, doctors recall the sober lessons of the hantavirus outbreak, a model of possible future viral outbreaks. A Stanford scientist demonstrates the amazing adaptive skills of microbes with one that has learned to live off us without killing us: Salmonella. In England, a physician and a medical student team with a 16th century historian to demonstrate that a disease Britons called "The Sweate" four centuries ago may have been caused by none other than a hantavirus. Another doctor labors against cholera and typhoid fever in Central America, as curable diseases like these kill fifty thousand humans a day worldwide. Finally, a chilling reminder of how fast microbes adapt: in Argentina, a new strain of the hantavirus emerges, one transmittable from person to person. Commenting on diseases like these, a scientist from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cautions: "We think that we are seeing them for the first time. But this is a cyclical thing. They reappear and appear, and they have done so throughout the whole of history."
Episode Four: Creators
of the Future
The fourth and final episode of INTIMATE STRANGERS: UNSEEN LIFE ON EARTH contemplates the dawn of a new age, The Age of Biology. Microbes form its basis, as scientists have learned to mimic the very processes that make these tiny creatures earth's most successful life form. Microbial technologies can make our planet cleaner, healthier, and more bountiful. In Vancouver, a scientist manipulates the DNA of microbes in search of new drugs to help fight emerging antibiotic resistance. The torched earth of Chernobyl in the Ukraine may hold special promise for such a discovery, bursting with species that have adapted even to its massive radiation. A plant biologist in Zimbabwe struggles to create a microbial solution to a blight affecting an African plant that feeds a population the size of America's. In South Carolina, a scientist uses microbes to speed the biodegrading of toxic waste to a fraction of the usual time. Seeing the unlimited promise of breakthrough technologies like these, he muses: "You know, it's sort of interesting that the microbes, the smallest of God's creatures, actually have the greatest potential for curing the greatest problems."
Produced by Peter Baker (producer of “The Astronomers”) and supported by The National Science Foundation, The American Society for Microbiology, Intimate Strangers: Unseen Life on Earth is a four-part documentary airing on PBS in November 1999.
Intimate Strangers has also been reversioned into a 12 part telecourse for the undergraduate classroom designed around the themes of the series, Unseen Life on Earth: An Introduction to Microbiology. To learn more about the telecourse and its companion text books visit www.microbeworld.org/mlc/pages/telecourse.asp.
This richly illustrated book to accompany the PBS science documentary Intimate Strangers: Unseen Life on Earth combines vivid, descriptive images from the series and original artwork with the compelling story of the world of microbes and their role in the Earth's ecosystem. The authors have built upon the series content to offer a more comprehensive view of our relationship with the planet's tiniest inhabitants.
Targeted to a general audience, the book's lively style will engage parents and their children and teachers and their students, along with other members of the scientifically interested public, putting the vitally important role of the microbial world into stories and terms familiar to the reader.
Intimate Strangers: Unseen Life on Earth is available for $39.95. To order, call 1-800-546-2416 (U.S. and Canada) or 1-703-661-1593 (all other countries).
Intimate Strangers: Unseen Life on Earth is published by ASM Press, a branch of the American Society for Microbiology. ISBN 1-55581-163-9.
Other Resources on Microbiology on the Web
MicrobeWorld.org is a wonderful introduction to the world of microbiology. The site offers facts and interesting articles on microbes, and resources for educators and students.
Copyright © 1999 Oregon Public Broadcasting and PBS Online