Microbiology

Fun Facts about Bacteria



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Bacteria rule the world. No matter where you go or what you're doing, you cannot escape them. Nor would you want to. They're inside you, on every surface you touch, in the air you breath, and an integral part of every living thing around you. Without bacteria, life as we know it would cease to exist.

We live in a germ-phobic society, constantly hounded by messages about products that will protect us from all those icky, evil germs. We are warned that we must do our best to remove 99% of the microscopic life in our lives. Wash your hands until they are sterile. Wipe those counter-tops! Scour your toilet! Spray our product in the air in your home, and all those horrid invisible creatures will be annihilated. Baloney.



Do you know where some of the most dangerous bacteria in the world live? Hospitals, those palaces of sterility. Think about it. If you keep killing 99% of the bacteria around you, over and over, those who finally survive the devastation are the strongest creatures ever created. You don't EVER want to get infected by a microbe left alive after countless cleanings.

Learn to love bacteria and you will sleep better at night. Sure they're in your pillow. You put them there, silly. (Well, perhaps your dog put them there, but you really shouldn't let her use your pillow, should you?) To help you appreciate the planet's tiniest creatures, here are some fun facts about bacteria.

Live long and prosper:

Bacteria have flourished on earth for over three billion years. They were here first, long before any of those adorable reptiles. We humans didn't learn about them until the late 17th century, however. You may not have heard of the Dutch scientist Antonie van Leeuwenhoak, who saw these "animacules" first, while squinting at some samples in the recently-invented microscope. He was looking at scrapings from inside the human mouth. At least six different types live in your mouth, despite your attempts to destroy them. Without them, you would die.

Go forth and multiply:

They're prolific, too. Here's a population count that's beyond our comprehension: bacteria and their relatives, the archaea, number at least five billion trillion trillion. If you could stop time long enough to line them all up nose to tail in a straight line, they'd stretch from here to the edge of the known universe (about ten billion light-years away). No other life-form on earth comes even close in second place.

One species (ocean-dweller Pseudomonas natriegens) can reach bacteria puberty about ten minutes after they're born. In theory a single organism could produce about one billion little clones between lunch and dinnertime. The beauty of bacteria (and the part that scares us, too) is that they are always mutating and evolving into new and wondrous forms. The majority of species remain to be discovered and named. Famed geneticist J. Craig Ventner trolled over a million previously unseen bacteria genes from ocean water in his first "fishing" trip, five years ago.

You cannot escape!

Inside your body, bacterial cells outnumber human cells ten to one. Furthermore, remnants of earlier bacterial DNA reside inside our own cells, performing crucial functions. When your doctor prescribes a regimen of antibiotics, you kill some of the most beneficial bacteria, too. The creatures that normally live and flourish inside your digestive system provide critical assistance in the absorption of nutrients. In tests on mice, researchers have shown that germ-free subjects must consume over 40 percent more food to survive, compared to an untreated group.

Fast times at E. coli High:

Under extreme magnification the unlovable E. coli ("food poisoning") look very much like your computer mouse. When they move it on out they whip their tails for propulsion. This microbe can cover 25 times the length of their body in a second. If a horse could do that, it would be galloping at over 130 miles per hour.

Extreme Conditions: Survivor Man would be proud.

We all know that cockroaches can survive Nuclear Winter. Some bacteria can do better than that. A probe sent two miles underground in a South American gold mine found bacteria living there. Their dinner? Radioactive emissions from the rocks around them. Above ground, the aptly named Deinococcus radiodurans can handle radiation exposure nearly 10,000 times the fatal dose for humans. Give them tiny hardhats and they can help clean up nuclear waste.

There's gold in them-thar bugs!

Not really, but one species called Ralstonia metallidurans can produce solid nuggets from dissolved gold. How do they do that? Well, first they "eat" the gold and then they...um, you get the idea. Perhaps this bacterium should have been named Midasia touchurans!

What's in the future?

Ambitious geneticist Ventner, mentioned earlier, vows to build a brand new bacterium from scratch. Assembling new genes in the lab, he hopes to create the first artificial life form. Sounds like a great plot for a horror film, doesn't it? Our old friend E. coli, when it's not outrunning locomotives, has been learning new tricks in another laboratory. Scientists there have inserted computer-like instructions into E. coli's genes. While the modified microbes cannot yet do calculus, they can be commanded to form bulls-eye patterns that glow. Patent pending.
- For more fun facts about these minuscule miracles, browse Discover Magazine online: http://discovermagazine.com/search?SearchableText=bacteria&Submit.x=26&Submit.y=3

 

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