In my world, the Earth's only sentient species is a microscopic protist ( about 75 - 100 μm and living for 5 years ) that is social lives in groups of 50 - 300, and is highly intelligent. To a species like this, would any microorganism be domesticatable or does the lack of intelligence among microorganisms prevent them from being domesticated?

  • $\begingroup$ Suggested reading: The Children Star by Joan Slonczewski. It features unicellular lifeforms with human-level intelligence which are able to communicate between each other and with humans too, able to travel (using insects as transportation devices) and to form societies. $\endgroup$
    – mg30rg
    Commented Feb 29, 2016 at 15:57
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    $\begingroup$ I have trouble picturing a sentient protist...they don't quite have the...brains for it. $\endgroup$
    – James
    Commented Feb 29, 2016 at 16:36
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    $\begingroup$ Yeast are domesticated microorganisms. They are not very intelligent compared to humans, but they can produce beer that narrows the gap! $\endgroup$
    – Dallaylaen
    Commented Mar 1, 2016 at 16:11
  • $\begingroup$ @Dallaylaen: Don't forget bread! And cheese, yoghurt, sour cream... Then there's penicillin & other antibiotics from molds... $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Commented Mar 1, 2016 at 18:12

3 Answers 3


do·mes·ti·cated -

  1. (of an animal) tame and kept as a pet or on a farm. "domesticated dogs"

  2. (of a plant) cultivated for food; naturalized. "domesticated crops"

So intelligence has nothing to do with domestication. We use Bacteria to make cheeses, and yeast to make fermented beverages. So any thing is 'domesticatable'. All you need is to train something to react how you want to certain stimuli or understand how certain stimuli can get you the reactions you want.

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    $\begingroup$ +1 If yeast doesn't count as an answer, I don't know what does! $\endgroup$
    – Cort Ammon
    Commented Feb 29, 2016 at 15:40
  • $\begingroup$ If we use Domestication of Plants as a guideline, then Yeast and other Bacteria for sure. We certainly don't do much for selective breeding or control what it actually does, we just cultivate it so what it does is what we expect it to. Its so simple and predictable that it is easy to manipulate. Our own bodies have (by count) more bacteria than Cells, but its a symbiotic mutualistic relationship, it can only do a few things, but it will always do them as it can, which is what we expect of it. $\endgroup$
    – Ryan
    Commented Feb 29, 2016 at 17:53
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    $\begingroup$ Yeast has very much been selectively bred over the years. In winemaking, the yeast becomes poisoned by alcohol when it reaches a certain strength. Wild yeast has much less tolerances to alcohol than domesticated yeasts. Grapes juice is the ideal food for some wild yeasts and they can ferment natural without human help. Making beer on the other hand is a delicate balancing act to get the chemical composition to be favourable for yeast. Over the years, some yeasts have become more suited to this. Breweries will jealously guard their own strains of yeast. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 1, 2016 at 17:02

Viruses can perhaps be selectively bred (e.g. like dogs are by humans) to have desirable characteristics such as the ability to convert certain organic compounds into nutrition for themselves and their 'host' species. As far as I know viruses are entirely non-intelligent (even deterministic?) in nature.

For instance your protagonist allows a beneficial virus cell to infect him and thus become able to absorb methane gas and turn it into some form of energy his own body can use.

I suppose this would be like a human deliberately contracting a virus that allows him to digest some previously indigestible but highly abundant foodstuff such as grass.

  • $\begingroup$ I think you're mixing up viruses and bacteria here. If I recall right a virus changes your own DNA, which is probably not what you want (though it can be beneficial as well if done right). For the examples you provided I would implant (aka swallow in a pill) some bacteria in the human digestive tract to do their work there. $\endgroup$
    – JFBM
    Commented Mar 1, 2016 at 14:33
  • $\begingroup$ @J_F_B_M, Perhaps my human example was a bit wonky. But I don't think a microorganism protagonist would be able to swallow a pill, whereas they could certainly be infected with a virus. $\endgroup$
    – Wossname
    Commented Mar 1, 2016 at 14:38
  • $\begingroup$ Of course the micro-equivalent of a pill. They can definitely not incorporate anything larger than themselves, be it bacterial, viral or non-organical. $\endgroup$
    – JFBM
    Commented Mar 1, 2016 at 14:40
  • $\begingroup$ I doubt that single cell life forms could manufacture anything as complex as a pill small enough to fit inside them. They could selectively breed (or whatever the correct jargon is for viruses) by simply herding themselves towards beneficial viruses and away from harmful ones. $\endgroup$
    – Wossname
    Commented Mar 1, 2016 at 14:46
  • $\begingroup$ Forget that pill, that is just the way humans get anything in the area after their stomach. Microorganisms would probably construct a Buckminsterfullerene around whatever they want if they are really into encapsulating stuff. $\endgroup$
    – JFBM
    Commented Mar 1, 2016 at 14:51

IIRC, domestication is the result of breeding intelligent compliance into animals, so it would probably only work in multicellular organisms. that being said, their are some kinds of bacteria that i believe are easier to work with, if thats what you mean. the most obvious example i can think of would be e. coli, but im sure that there are other species. sorry if that isnt very helpful.


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