B is for Bacteria


All life evolved from bacteria. Billions of years before humans evolved, these single-celled organisms managed to transform the planet’s surface and atmosphere into a chemical state that allowed life to emerge. Without bacteria, there would be no air to breathe, no soil for growth. In fact, our bodies are colonized by bacteria. There’s actually 10 times more bacteria in our guts than cells in our bodies. Plus, bacteria can talk. The term is called “quorum sensing.” When a crowd of bacteria get together they communicate through chemical signaling, and by using their receptors like an antennae, they lock-on to signals, change their behavior by altering their gene expression, and stop acting like individuals and begin thinking like the group. And, if it serves the purpose of the collective, a bacterium’s dedication is so intense, it will even commit suicide. Of course there are bad bacteria, but many are friendly, in fact, experts say that germs are our future, and probiotics or good germs, are slated to be the antibiotics of the 21st century. And now, with the advent of synthetic biology, bacteria are being hacked. Currently, scientists aim to create everything from edible bacteria that can fight cavities and produce vitamins to microbial fuel cells powered by glucose and sewage. But considering that researchers at J. Craig Venter Institute have already engineered a bacterial genome from scratch, it’s evident that bacteria will be tomorrow’s factories, programmed to carry out a range of tasks such as manufacturing pharmaceuticals and sequestering carbon dioxide. Even information technologists are dreaming of encoding Earth’s history inside the artificial DNA of bacteria in case of catastrophe. For years, bacteria has had a bad rap. But those days are over. (Just ask biologist Lynn Margulis.)

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