From an early age, we’re told to wash our hands, not lick the dog, put the milk back in the frige and so on. Why? Because of BACTERIA! We’re told that bugs, germs AKA ‘bacteria’ are bad for us, will make us sick and possibly even die.

But is this true? Well, sometimes yes, but mostly no. If you read another website (how dare you!) that gives a percentage of harmless bacteria, well, it’s incorrect. At the moment, no one has come up with an accurate figure. The closest we have is that for every 30,000 types of bacteria, one strain is harmful or ‘pathogenic’ – which means it’s capable of causing disease.

In fact bacteria are essential to life. They’re found in all ecosystems and even in our bodies. – bacteria also play a vital role in our society as we use them for a whole range of products and functions.

1. Food: Bacteria have been used for thousands of years in the preparation of fermented foods such as cheese, pickles, wine and yoghurt and other foods (see link to The Cheese Page). This is through the metabolic processes of certain types of bacteria. Lactic acid bacteria (Lactobacillus) is often used as it converts carbohydrates into alcohols, and lactic acids for preservation.

2. Bioremediation: Bacteria are used to clean up oil spills through a process called bioremeditation. In 1989 after the tanker, Exon Valdez, spilt around 11 million gallons of oil into the sea off the coast of Alaska, fertilizer was placed on a number of beaches to help grow bacteria which have the ability to naturally degrade some of the oil. (see link to Bioremediation Page)

3. Pest Resistance: Bacteria can also be used instead of pesticides with a little gene engineering. Cotton is a very useful crop to humans, but its suceptible to disease and pests, so huge amounts of pesticides have to be sprayed on it thoughout the year. The pesticides are harmful to all insect life…and not so good for humans either. But, by engineering the cotton plant with the genes of the soil dwelling bacteria called Bacillus thuringiensis (shortened to BT), the cotton plant becomes far more resistant to insect attack and disease, thus reducing the need for chemically induced pesticides.

It works because Bacillus thuringiensis naturally repels or kills the insects which can harm the cotton plant, especially a type of caterpillar that can wipe out an entire crop. However, some cotton-eating insects are resistant to the BT cottom and there are concerns farmers will have to revert to using pesticides. Can science keep up with critters…we’ll keep you posted of course.

4. Medical Research: Microbiologists like to use bacteria to study disease because they have fast growth and replication. It’s also now reasonably easy to manipulate their genes. This means that scientists are able to fiddle about and safely create genetic mutations to examine the function of genes, enzymes and metabolic pathways, then by applying this to larger organisms, they can develop new medical treatments and understand disease far better.

5. Renewable Fuels: Bacteria might just be our fuels of the future. By inserting the genes of camphor trees, soil bacteria and blue-green algae into that of the bacterium, e.coli (yes, the one that’s in your poo!), then feeding it straw and animal manure, you can get the e.coli to produce hydrocarbons that you can run your car on. The great thing about this is that existing engines won’t need to be modified and yet we’re not using up our stores of natural resources.

6. Cure for IBS and C.diff: Less savory, but on the same track is the recent medical developments in faecal transplants…yes folks, as in ‘human poo’ transplant. Why on earth would you want someone elses poo inserted into you? For those who suffer IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome) and know nothing but abdominal pain, bloating and diarrhorrea, it can be a life changer.

Whilst relatively unknown, it was first used in the 1950’s. Perhaps it’s the ‘ick’ factor that puts people off, but in a recent study on people infected with Clostridium dificile (the dreaded C.diff bacteria) which can leave an adult in agony….and nappies, they found that 94% were cured following a faecal implant compared to 27% who took the standard antibiotic treatment.

To put things into perspective, between 2006 to 2010, infection with C. diff  was named in 27,327 deaths in England and Wales. It’s often called the ‘antibiotic disease’ as these useful medicines can have a catastrophic effect on our good gut bacteria. This leaves our digestive system open to attack from the less friendly varities of bacteria. The faecal implant essentially floods the intestines with healthy gut flora and restoring its health. (see article on gut flora)

Related Posts