According to a TED Talk by Bonnie Bassler of Princeton University, we humans are crawling—inside and out—with more bacteria than cells. If you’re like me, the thought of that makes you shudder a little bit. It brings to mind the material you’d see in a horror movie (“It’s got me! AGHHH!”).
However, the fact that bacteria are all around us isn’t such a bad thing. In fact, these little guys are often harmless or even beneficial. From food production to wicked cool inventions, bacteria actually play a huge role in our world and daily lives.
Bacteria aid our digestion, helping us break down foods like plant materials that would otherwise be tough to digest. As a result, we’re able to suck up more of the foods’ nutrients.
Early exposure to bacteria also helps our immune systems distinguish between the good stuff and the bad stuff. This is the leading explanation for the recent uptick in food allergies and asthma: we’ve gone overboard with the whole “cleanliness” thing, killing off the bacteria that teach kids’ immune systems how to function properly.
If you love wine, cheese, beer, yogurt, chocolate, pepperoni pizza, or pickles, thank a bacterium; they’re the reason you can eat or drink any of those things! These little organisms spark chemical reactions, as well as break down larger proteins, carbs, and fats that are hard for us to taste otherwise.
The result? Flavor and characteristic texture.
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We’re not the only ones who benefit from bacteria—plants do, too! They live in the roots of some plants (like peas and beans) and convert atmospheric nitrogen into that which can be used as a fertilizer. Bacteria also break down organic matter, contributing to the soil—one of the things we obviously need in order to grow fruits and veggies. Vegetarians and vegans, you can thank microbes, too!
Now for my personal favorite—bacteria can be used for mind-blowing, sci-fi worthy ventures.
E. coli bacteria, for example, may be the flash drives of the future; scientists have figured out how to store data in these organisms (Whaaaaaat?!). Among other things, bacteria can also mop up oil spills, form a sustainable type of packaging by growing a biodegradable, paper-like shell around an object, and serve as a source for biofuel.
Bacteria may be pretty simple organisms, but that doesn’t mean they’re not important. From providing an exquisite wine on a special occasion, to shaping our immune systems, and allowing life on Earth to flourish, these little guys do us a lot of good.