Bacteria are everywhere and have been for decades, centuries, epochs. Arguably one of the most evolved microorganisms on Earth, bacteria can be found in varying shapes and sizes and can be identified in most habitats on the planet. Commonly thought of as causing illness and disease, these pesky little cells actually serve a multitude of purposes which make life viable.
Here are 10 facts you may not know about bacteria:
Bacteria are the oldest life form on Earth, with the simplest single-celled microorganisms dating back 3.5 billion years; without them, simply the world would not be able to sustain life. Despite their small size (most averaging 2 – 8 um in length), bacteria numbers exceed that of all flora and fauna on Earth with an approximation of 5 x 1030. If each bacterium was arranged end-to-end in a single line, they would stretch roughly 10 billion light years away from Earth, reaching the edge of the visible universe.
2) Tip of a bacteria iceberg
Scientists have not characterised all the known bacteria but more astonishingly, most bacteria present on Earth is yet to be identified. One source of potentially millions of undiscovered bacteria are the global oceans which could harbour as many new forms of microorganisms as have already been found.
3) Bacteria by numbers
The average human body can hold over 50 trillion bacteria cells, although this figure differs considerably in men and women. Some are beneficial and even vital to the body’s systems, but some infect and colonise cells, tissues, and organs to prevent the normal functioning of that particular part. It is estimated that a human body at any one time holds between 2 – 5 lbs of bacteria.
4) Good or Bad?
Organism systems need bacteria to survive. Just as bacteria are responsible for decomposition in soil to cycle chemicals and nutrients, the same is true of the body and bacteria acts as an organism recycler – one of the most important is during digestion. Vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients from food substances we eat are broken down by bacteria to release them into the blood stream and transported to the different cells which require them. However, even though some bacteria can be beneficial to certain parts of organisms in optimum quantities, a colonisation or cluster in a particular region of good bacteria can pose problems for human health.
We’ve seen that bacteria are directly beneficial to plants and organisms but they can also be effective in wider areas of the environment. Groups of bacteria, termed as biofilms, stick to each other and can form on both living and non-living surfaces. A link between biology and the weather is starting to be established by scientists. The bacteria held in clouds are drivers for ice formation which subsequently forms as snow and rain. So, biofilms in high enough concentrations could be dispersed to create precipitation in drought-prone regions of the world – cool!
6) Wash and dry
‘Wash your hands.’ A phrase we’ve all heard since childhood, and reminded of in most bathrooms when we are out. It is well known that by washing your hands, you are removing potentially harmful bacteria from your body’s surface, but what about drying your hands? Scientists have concluded that drying your hands with paper towels or cotton towels removes between 45% and 60% of bacteria on hands. However, paper towels are creating waste for the environment and cotton towels would have to be replaced regularly, so the hand dryer has become a common feature. But it is estimated that by drying your hands using a hand dryer actually increases the number of bacteria on your hands by as much as 225% because of the warm temperature, which provides an optimum habitat for bacteria.
7) World Record
Yes, bacteria takes a place in the Guinness Book of World Records. Deinococcus radiodurans is thought to be the toughest discovered bacterium. It is able to survive in extremely cold temperatures, a habitat devoid of water, a vacuum, and even acidic conditions. These qualities also make it an excellent choice for information storage which is translated into DNA sequences and stored within the bacteria. The findings are still in their early stages of development and the bacteria cannot yet hold information in any great quantity – a single song would need multiple bacteria cells – but a thought is that in nuclear disasters, important information would not be lost, and more impressively, retrievable.
8) Melting bacteria back to life
In 2007, scientists extracted an 8 million-year-old bacterium from Antarctic ice – the oldest ice on earth. Initially frozen in time, the cell has been thawed and is now growing in a laboratory. If the growing is successful, it means that bacteria cells frozen in the ancient past could be able to function again when ice melts as a result of global warming.
9) What’s that smell?
The smell of the first rain after a period of dry weather is actually produced by bacteria. During rainfall, soil releases geosmin which is a by-product of bacteria and produces the characteristic scent.
10) Humans can be deadly
We now know that the human body harbours trillions of bacteria and as a result, a bite from the mouth of our species is thought of as the most dangerous bite in the entire animal kingdom due to a number of bacteria that is passed from mouth to puncture site. The reason we aren’t generally affected if unlucky enough to be the victim of a human bite is because our teeth are not sharp enough to puncture the deep tissue within the body, which are most vulnerable to bacteria infections.
Related: 30 More Facts About Bacteria