Why should we care about bacteria? For one thing, they are smarter than us

animated bacteria GIF, electron transport chain gif
The human electron transport chain with ATP synthase
animated bacteria GIF, electron transport chain gif
Some of the protein members of bacterial electron transport chains

We think we are pretty smart as humans. It wasn’t until recently that dolphins were considered non-human “people” by scientists due to their intelligence. But, I guess it all depends on your perspective…

A lot of federal research funding promotes the study of known, and unknown, bacteria. Some watch dog groups may ask why should we as humans care about bacteria? This is my argument.

As humans, can we live 30,000 feet above ground? Can we live 4km (~2 mi.) below ground? Can we “eat” rocks? Can we survive extended periods of time without food? The answer to these questions are, “No.” However, if the questions are focused on bacteria, then the answer is an astounding, “Yes!” Are these abilities to survive in extreme environments significant to us as humans? The answer is beyond our imagination at this point. Metabolically speaking, bacteria are orders of magnitude more complex than humans who have to rely on energy production within their mitochondria, which are living fossils of a former bacterium (endosymbiont). Over the past couple billion years, bacteria have found creative ways to keep an advantage over their neighbors through, for example, utilizing new materials for energy or producing antibiotics. These examples come from the negligible percentage of known bacteria which stands at less than 1%. This is why research funding is vital and necessary.

In our changing climate, nations are looking for alternatives to replace fossil fuels like petroleum and natural gas to ensure the quality of later generations. Bacteria are Nature’s tiny chemical factories that have learned to use almost all natural, and some artificial, substances to generate cellular energy. One major factor when looking for alternative energy sources is sustainability. Bacteria are self-sustained when given the necessities for life which can be as little as sunlight and carbon dioxide while producing helpful byproducts than be utilized as alternative energy sources by the public. Such examples include ethanol, butanol, or hydrogen.  A major focus of funding is to enhance bacteria or their metabolic pathways to develop proficient generators of biofuels.

From the Industrial Revolution all the way through the Cold War, we have certainly made a mess of things in our environment. Some land is unfit for public use due to toxic or otherwise hazardous materials. Luckily for us, research has found an amazing discovery among the bacterial world. A subset of bacteria can and do harness the ability to utilize materials for energy production that we as humans if exposed to these compounds would become ill or die. The hazardous material seeping into the subsurface has altered the bacterial communities found within. Some of the ecological micro-communities rely upon each member to utilize a different byproduct of other community members in order for the community to exist. Several bacterial genera have been shown to remove toxic material like uranium or chromium from vital water tables we as humans rely upon for drinking water.

The metabolic versatility of bacteria is one of our tickets to a better world, but in order to utilize these little miracle generators, continued research is necessary.


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