April 7 – A Little Buggy

Today’s factismal: Bacteria can tell lies.

If you ever think about bacteria, you probably think of them as tiny little critters that can be killed with bleach. But they are so much more and so much more interesting than that. The first thing that they are is numerous. Most of the animals on Earth are bacteria; on and in your body, there are ten bacteria for every single human cell. (But the bacteria are much, much smaller than your cells.) If you dig in the dirt, each gram of soil has 40 million bacteria on average. And if you drink a cup of fresh water, then you are swallowing down some 240 million little bugs. There are 170 million bacteria on Earth for every single star in the Universe. In other words, they are everywhere!

Human white blood cells trying to kill off two drug-resistant Klebsiella pneumoniae bacteria (Image courtesy NIH)

Human white blood cells trying to kill off two drug-resistant Klebsiella pneumoniae bacteria
(Image courtesy NIH)

The second thing that they are is diverse. Some bacteria live two miles deep within the Earth where they feed off of the hydrogen and sulfur given off by the rocks. Other bacteria live 30 miles up in the stratosphere where they float on winds for decades at a time. Some bacteria are pathogenic, causing diseases such as MRSA and salmonella and cholera and leprosy. And other bacteria live in a symbiotic relationship with a host, be it the man-eating clam or the man eating clams.

MRSA being eaten by white blood cells (Image courtesy NIH)

MRSA being eaten by white blood cells
(Image courtesy NIH)

The third thing that they are is communicative. It is hard to believe but recent research has shown that colonies of bacteria communicate via chemical signals. A certain protein squirted out into the water will tell all of the bacteria that they are under attack and should start making antibiotics. A different chemical clue will let them know where the tasty food is. Yet another protein tells the bacteria that things are getting a little crowded and it is time to spread out. Now this would be fantastic enough but it turns out that many bacteria can communicate between species. In some cases, this can allow the two species to get along as mutualists. And in other cases, one species of bacteria may actually “lie” to another by giving off false chemical signals.

A three-foot long giant clam (My camera)

A three-foot long giant clam
(My camera)

The last and most important thing that bacteria are is useful. Bacteria have been used to make foods for thousands of years (yoghurt and cheese, anyone?). And bacteria have been used to make antibiotics and to discover new antibiotics since Fleming discovered bread mold in 1928. Bacteria can also act as the garbage scows of the Earth, turning trash into mulch and spills into chills.

If you’d like to get your hands dirty and help scientists find yet more bacteria to exploit, then why not take part in the Natural Products Discovery Groups soil sampling program? This University of Oklahoma team is looking to find new fungi living in soil samples from around the world. All you have to do is dig up some soil, slip it into their collection kit, and send it off. To learn more, dig in at:

http://npdg.ou.edu/citizenscience

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