Germs. They're on everything. Doorknobs. Faucet handles. The insides of hamster cages for children at McDonald's. Municipalities chlorinate their water supplies, and dairy farmers pasteurize the milk from cows. Teachers regularly use Clorox wipes and supply their students with with Purell in an effort to slaughter unwanted microbes. Killers like cholera, typhoid and tuberculosis are no longer major problems in Western cities. Yet, in our obsession with making ourselves germ-free, we've forgotten that the vast majority of bacteria in the world are beneficial. They're not just good, they're vital, and when we kill them off in our crusade against the harmful varieties, we leave ourselves open to different kinds of problems.
Bacteria are not evil. In fact, bacteria provide a host of useful services from digesting our waste to producing vitamins. Bacteria were created to fulfill specific functions, and life on Earth depends on them. Consider the following relatively short list:
Scientists have identified about 400 different species of bacteria living in our stomach and intestines. If we lived on a deserted island sans pasteurization, toxic chemicals, chlorine or antibiotics, we might have trillions of these little guys in our guts, doing the things they do best. Bacteria like bifidobacteria, lactobacilli, and Escherichia coli break down foods that we can't and provide necessary vitamins for us as a result. What's more, their presence in our digestive system hold down the growth of dangerous pathogens - the microbes that can cause us harm.
Wait. Escherichia coli? We all thought E. coli was a monster out to cause internal hemorrhaging and death.
A few harmful E. coli strains get all the attention, but E coli is a common member of our intestinal flora and provides us with Vitamin K and B-complex vitamins. The harmful E. coli varieties were produced when viruses inserted their DNA into the E. coli genetic codes, making those particular bacterial strains dangerous for human consumption. E. coli isn't naturally our enemy; some of its species members just turned on us.
Bacteria like Clostridium acetobutylicum naturally produce sodium butyrate, which has anti-cancer characteristics:
1. It lowers an enzyme called Cox-2, which has been found to cause pre-cancerous inflammation.
2. Cancer cells reproduce rapidly because the gene that would force them to self-destruct has been "turned off". The sodium butyrate turns that gene back on, and the cancer cells die.
Certain Lactobacillus casei strains improve the activity of Natural killer (NK) cells, helping the body's natural ability to fight off cancer. NK cells in the immune system go around like Sheriff Matt Dillon, taking out cells that are cancerous or infected with viruses.
Streptococcus thermophilus has been credited with diminishing the small-bowel damage done to rats who had undergone chemotherapy. It also possesses anti-cancer and anti-tumor benefits and is a natural antibiotic.
Streptomyces parvulus naturally fights the spread of malignant tumors by producing the compound borrelidin. Borrelidin inhibits angiogenesis – the growth of new blood vessels from existing blood vessels. Angiogenesis is important for healing wounds, but it is also a key part of a tumor's going malignant.
Nutrient Cycles in Nature
One of the most important things that bacteria and other microorganisms do is recycle important elements. Different types of creatures need different forms of carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen. Bacteria are instrumental in the carbon cycle, the nitrogen cycle, and photosynthesis and the release of oxygen into the air.
In the carbon cycle, photosynthetic bacteria "fix" CO2. That is, they take it out of the atmosphere and use it to build themselves. While feeding other creature up the food chain, cyanobacteria (and planktonic algae) also do the majority of the work of photosynthesis on Earth, taking in CO2 and releasing O2 into the air. Cyanobacteria and algae are responsible for at least 50 percent of the O2 production on the earth.
Other bacteria break down our garbage. Whether in sewage treatment or compost or landfills, or in the decomposition of dead things in the woods, bacteria do the vital job of breaking things back down to their component parts and releasing CO2 back into the air.
Azotobacter, Beijerinckia, and Clostridium bacteria fix nitrogen from the air, taking N2 straight from the atmosphere, where it is abundant, and converting it to the form of NH3 (ammonia) which animals and plants can use. Rhizobium bacteria help plants absorb nitrogen from the soil. Nitrosomonas converts NH3 to nitrites, and Nitrobacter converts nitrites to nitrates for use by plants. Still other bacteria turn nitrites into N2O, returning N2 to the atmosphere.
The cyanobacterium, Synechococcus, is an all-around useful organism responsible for about 25 percent of primary production in marine environments. It is good at nitrogen fixation and oxygenic photosynthesis and is therefore involved in all three - the carbon, nitrogen and oxygen cycles.
Fighting Bad Breath and Cavities:
Certain bacteria can even improve our oral health! The beneficial bacteria Streptoccocus salivarius K12 strain produces a natural protein that stops the growth of the bacteria that makes our breath stink.
Some bacteria even fight cavities. S. salivarius M18 naturally destroys the hostile Streptococcus mutans bacteria and converts the urea in our saliva into ammonia. Ammonia is basic and therefore neutralizes the lactic acid that eats holes in our tooth enamel. S. salivarius M18 also makes an enzyme that can dissolve the gooey dextran that holds plaque together.
Other Useful "Pests":
Bacteria aren't alone in their usefulness. For instance, mycorrhizal fungi have been recognized as beneficial to many plants, including agricultural crops like rice and potatoes. It lives in the roots, symbiotically helping plants absorb phosphate and increasing the plants' ability to withstand drought and fight off pathogens.
Dr. Ian Sanders at the University of Lausanne, Switzerland has been working to develop strains of mycorrhizal fungi that can significantly increase crop yields while reducing the amount of phosphate fertilizers added to fields. Phosphate runoff into the water supply has a major agricultural impact on local ecology. The phosphate feeds algae which grow in huge blooms in downstream water. The algae blooms absorb oxygen and other resources, out-competing other natural wildlife, filling lakes and bays with killer green ooze. If farmers can use a little fungus to get the phosphate into agricultural crops instead of the water runoff, both farmers and local watersheds would have fewer headaches.
And The List Goes On:
A host of bacteria are known to improve the immune system and reduce allergies, fight irritable bowel syndrome, digest cellulose in the guts of grazing animals, and keep ponds clean.
Despite all our science, we continue to experience a large number of illnesses; allergies are more common today than ever. Perhaps our problem is not that our antibiotics are too weak. God knew what He was doing when He created bacteria in the first place. They too were a part of His "very good" creation (Genesis 1:31). The answer to our illnesses may not be more Purell. Instead, maybe we just need to encourage our kids to go play in the dirt.
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