Bacteria are associated with the three D’s: dirt, disease and death but not all of them are harmful. Source: Microsoft Images.
Bacteria suffer from negative public relations. You probably associate bacteria with the three D’s: dirt, disease and death. And indeed, for centuries bacterial infections were the major cause of infant and child mortality worldwide. Child mortality began to decline after people were educated about better hygiene. The decline continued with the introduction of antibiotics for better treatment and vaccination for prevention of common deadly diseases.
Bacteria are certainly involved in dirt, disease and death, to which we should add decay. Spoilage of leftover food, decomposition of garden cuttings, decay of dead bodies, or smelly water in a forgotten vase, are all the result of bacterial activity. As is body odor, caries, strep throat, or bubonic plague, to name a few diseases from both ends of the spectrum. No wonder that bacteria receive a bad press.
Commercials want us to believe that the only good bacterium is a dead bacterium. Antimicrobial agents are added to tooth paste, soaps, detergents, and plastics. There is no Society for the Protection of Bacteria, although there is a satirical initiative for the Ethical Treatment of Bacteria.1 Some bacteria may even hover on the edge of extinction, and it is no coincidence that these are pathogenic (disease-causing) bacteria such as Salmonella typhi (the cause of typhoid fever) or Yersinia pestis (the cause of plague). Fortunately for the little critters, populations survive in remote areas where they are not efficiently hunted with vaccines and antimicrobials, and people are still at risk for the diseases they cause in these places.
The bacterial kingdom
It is about time we take a closer look at the Bacterial Kingdom, with capitals. For a Kingdom it is, biologically speaking, and the ancient lineage, diversity, and evolutionary power of its inhabitants deserve royal treatment rather than disgust.
Before kindling fascination for the world of bacteria, a common misconception must be cleared: bacteria are not viruses.
Whereas most bacteria live as independent cells with a membrane to separate them from the outside world, viruses can only multiply inside, and to the detriment of, the cells they infect. Interestingly, some viruses, called bacteriophages, have specialized to infect bacteria.2,3
Viruses consist only of genetic material (DNA or RNA) surrounded by a protein shell. They cannot metabolize and once inside a host cell, their genetic material hijacks the cell’s machinery to produce replicas of the virus.
Bacteria are much more similar to you and me. They exhibit the basic characteristics of all living things — they breathe, metabolize, produce waste, and maintain a membrane potential. However, they do not have a nucleus in which their DNA is separated from the rest of the cell, as plants and animals do, and that is the major distinction between prokaryotes (a type of cell that most microorganisms are made of, including all bacteria) and eukaryotes (a different type of cell making up nucleated microorganisms, such as yeasts, or cells in an organism, e.g., human).
Both viruses and bacteria can cause disease. However, not all types of viruses cause disease in humans, and not all bacteria cause disease.
Another common misconception is that all bacteria are bad for you. Some bacteria you’d better not meet, but the majority of them are completely harmless, and some are highly beneficial to us. Confusingly, certain bacteria can be beneficial to some animals, and pathogenic to others. More commonly, pathogenic bacteria are harmful only to a limited number of hosts, or even only to one, whereas they live happily within other hosts without causing trouble. If the suffering host happens to be human, the culprit bacteria are called human pathogens; however, from the bacterial point of view, humans are just the wrong host to be in. So who is to blame for the disease?
Most bacteria are completely harmless
Although a tree can kill a person when it falls, we usually don’t regard trees as harmful. The same is true for most bacteria — although they may cause problems under specific conditions, they usually live their lives without interfering with ours. An example is Pseudomonas aeruginosa, which commonly lives in soil without doing harm. However, if it is inhaled by a person with Cystic Fibrosis, it can colonize their lungs and cause lethal infections.4
For many bacteria, the human body is not the right place to live in at all.
- They couldn’t cope with the lack of oxygen (inside our cells the oxygen concentration is lower than that of air) or with the presence of oxygen (for bacteria that live in oxygen-deprived environments, oxygen is toxic).
They couldn’t withstand our defense mechanisms such as the salt present on our skin and in our tears, the lack of iron (a smart device keeps iron, a vital element to all living organisms, inaccessible to most microorganisms in our body), or with the toxic radicals that cells release when under attack of bacteria.
It could be too warm for them, or too cold, as certain bacteria have specific temperature requirements to grow.
Or they could be deprived of food, as the members of the Bacterial Kingdom have specialized to live on almost anything, but each species has specific nutrient needs.
In conclusion, we have little to fear from most bacteria that we encounter.
It is no big surprise that we are relatively inert to bacteria. After all, mammals have evolved in the presence of bacteria, and have developed specialized strategies to keep bacteria under control. In contrast to what your mother taught you, soap is not essential to survive. Our body can resist the bombardment of bacteria it receives every day quite efficiently. Just as well that we can’t see them (for the idea is unpleasant) but with every breath of air, every bite we take, little bugs are unknowingly entering our body. And this shouldn’t worry you in the least. As long as you keep the troublemakers — the real pathogens — out.
We couldn’t live without bacteria
We house millions of bacteria on our skin and in our nose, mouth, and gut:
- up to 500 species can be found as normal oral flora5
- there can easily be 25 species living in a single mouth
- a milliliter of saliva can contain as many as 40 million (4 x 107) bacterial cells6
- 108 bacterial cells present in the cecum (the initial part of the colon) per milliliter of content is normal and many of these species are different from those found in the mouth7
Strictly speaking, the inside of our mouth, stomach and intestines are part of our outer surfaces. Although they are inside our body, their surfaces are in direct contact with the outside world, and as food particles pass the mucosal inner lining of our intestines, hitchhiking bacteria can stay there and multiply. We are born sterile (free of bacteria) but within hours we are colonized by our little friends, not to be left alone again.
Without bacteria we would not survive. They help us digest our food, produce vitamins, and occupy niches that would otherwise be available for competing pathogens. This competitive effect becomes apparent when we wipe out a large proportion of our intestinal flora, for instance by an antibiotic that is prescribed to treat a bacterial infection. Diarrhea is frequently the unwanted result, as ‘foreign’ bacteria take their chance to occupy the ‘empty’ niches. Healthy bacteria take over in time, so that in most cases the side effects of antibiotics are soon gone. Bacterial populations grow into a state of equilibrium until some external factor disturbs it again.
Certain bacteria are good for you
For centuries, people have eaten certain food deliberately for the bacteria it contains and have used bacteria in food preparation.
The best-known example is the consumption of yogurt and other fermented milk products, which have the combined effect of reducing spoilage, and enhancing tolerance for partially lactose-intolerant individuals.
A major industry has developed to produce bacterial preparations, in the form of powders, drinks, and dairy products; all sold as healthy and beneficial (and sometimes tasty) supplements. Although some of their promises are unrealistic (some products don’t even contain viable bacteria), it is generally accepted that certain bacteria are beneficial, especially when intestinal flora is unbalanced (as with antibiotic-associated diarrhea). The most commonly used bacterial species as so-called probiotics are lactobacilli and bifidobacterium.8
A number of bacterial species are required for the preparation of food, and may or may not arrive on our plate alive.9 Notably, many cheese varieties are dependent on their characteristic bacterial starter culture. Fermenting bacteria are required to produce sausages and sauerkraut; they even help cacao and coffee beans to attain their desired flavor.10
Earth: the planet of bacteria
In a gram of soil, approximately 108 bacteria are present11 and these are estimated to represent over 10,000 species. Interestingly, there are more than 1030 bacteria on earth, compared with fewer than 1010 humans.12
- Bacteria were the first living organisms found on Earth.
- They inhabit deserts, ice caps, oceans and hot springs.
- The number of bacterial species worldwide is estimated to be more than a thousand million.11 Their individual sizes may be insignificant, but their number and diversity is unimaginably large.
- Bacteria contribute substantially to the total biomass in marine environments.13 And, since oceans cover 70% of our planet’s surface, bacteria make up a significant part of the total biomass on Earth.
These facts are truly impressive for organisms so small that they are invisible to the eye. It is to our advantage to look at bacteria as more than just pathogens.
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