The Abilities of the Unseen Microbial World

WHAT are neither plant nor mammal nor rock? What causes toothaches, smells like rotten eggs, and eats flesh, but is also used to clean up oil spills and to produce electricity out of sewage? Not visible to the eye, these creatures live not only in the manure of a cow, but also in boiling water. Some scientists even believe these organisms to be space travelers!

No, they are not evil aliens with superior intelligence. Instead, teeny tiny bacteria are responsible for all of the above! You can find these small living organisms (also called microbes) just about everywhere: in water, air, soil, plants, animals, and even inside human beings. Having spent approximately 3.5 billion years on the planet earth, bacteria have developed into many different types with many different functions.

Very few bacteria species have even been given a scientific name because there are just so many of them. There are more than 15,000 bacteria species found on the planet earth, from Antarctica to the hot springs in Yellowstone to the deep, dark, and very cold sea. The bacteria that your parents most likely talk about are the microbes that cause diseases: the pathogenic bacteria.

These nasty microbes can lead to a number of diseases: dental cavities, acne, food poisoning, tetanus, and scarlet fever are only a few of the diseases caused in humans by bacteria. However, while “bad” bacteria get lots of attention, there are many good bacteria that help humans out in nature and also through manipulation by scientists. From termites to cows to humans, bacteria help aid food digestion for animals by breaking down molecules that the stomach itself could not. In fact, microbes breaking down the food molecules produce the gas that is passed from farting or belching.

But that’s not all bacteria do! Bacteria are used to make healthy foods like yogurt, to produce some of the most powerful medicines, and to also break down garbage created by humans. A sturdy group of bacteria have been found to be able to break down certain toxic substances like oil without themselves dying. Certain bacteria, which can be incredibly resilient in the harshest of conditions, are able to break down toxic waste products into harmless byproducts and can even be manipulated by scientists to produce the earth’s life-giving gas, oxygen.

Scientists are also studying bacteria in the hopes of finding new medicines and of discovering more about how life may have developed on this planet. How can you learn more about this magical world? Ask your teacher and parents about science news magazines, web sites, or other sources you could use to keep up with what’s happening.

Stay curious and inquisitive about the world around you, as there are many magical things not immediately obvious to our eyes!