Backing bacteria


Bacteria are in the news this week.  Specifically the Bdellovibrio bacteriovorus which likes to insert itself into another bacterium, munch its way through its host and, fully lunched up, burst forth to repeat the procedure with the next unfortunate bacterium in its path.  If that sounds particularly stomach-churning, the happy news is that the bacteria that it likes to inhabit and eat are none other than Shigella, close relatives of Salmonella and responsible for an astonishing million deaths annually.  A further 159 million suffer from the food poisoning that they cause.[1]

Researchers from Imperial College London and the University of Nottingham have conducted encouraging laboratory tests, with the predatory bacteria killing 75% of the Shigella on offer.  They hope that further trials might lead to an effective, if unconventional, alternative cure for Shigella food poisoning.

As we prepare to thank this micro-organism for its potential contribution to medical science and to the lengthening of another million lives each year, it is worth remembering that bacteria have been around for a good deal longer than we have.  Their ancestors were the first life form on Earth –  four billion years ago.  Cockroaches, often referred to as ancient creatures, are the new kids on the block by comparison, dating back a mere 320 million years.  Of course, we all know that we could not live without the trillions of bacteria that are milling around in our intestines but perhaps we are unaware that they make up 90% of our mass.  There are ten times as many of them as there are human cells in and on our bodies.  And before we feel diminished by being 10% of our imagined selves, it is worth reflecting upon the fact that we would not exist at all without these tiny lifeforms.

In very simple terms, the more diverse the array of bacteria in the gut, the healthier the individual.  Some bacteria have pronounced medical benefits. Take Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium for example.  These two bacteria have now been proven to prevent the proliferation of certain cancerous tumours [2] and both produce lactic acid which is present in beer, cheese and pickles as well as yoghurt, cocoa and cider.   Happy news for those partial to a Ploughman’s Lunch. Just this month, the National Cancer Research Institute announced that it had found that immunotherapies were often more effective when the cancer patient had elevated levels of Ruminococcus bacteria.[3]  The list goes on.

And bacteria are not only good news for the medical profession, they are also the rising stars of the biotechnology sector as well as the basis of a growing number of solutions for industry.

Not one but two limestone-producing bacteria can be used to make self-healing concrete as reported this week in Rockfire’s selection of new building materials to watch.  Acid-forming bacteria are key to anaerobic digestion, the doubly useful method by which organic waste is converted to energy.  This week has brought the announcement of new anaerobic digestors for Buckingham Palace [4] to add to the existing tally of 540 facilities in the UK [5].  And still on waste, scientists from the University of Birmingham have found a way to recover the precious metal, palladium, from industrial waste, using a microbe similar to the common soil bacterium, Desulfovibrio desulfuricans.  Palladium is especially valuable for its chemical properties that can help in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. For the spectrally minded, there are photosynthetic bacteria, which, despite their name, are not all green but sometimes purple, and these have a variety of applications including water purification, animal feed and fertilisers.

It is tempting to continue but there are five million trillion trillion types of bacteria according to a microbiologist who attempted to count them in 1998 [6] and the point has been made.  These tiny things are powerful sources of potential profit.

[1] Predatory bacteria can wipe out superbugs, says study
[2] Immunomodulatory and antitumor effects in vivo by the cytoplasmic fraction of Lactobacillus casei and Bifidobacterium longum.
[3] Gut bacteria ‘may help drugs fight cancer’
[4] AD plans for Buckingham Palace
[5] New anaerobic digestion map shows over 500 operational plants in UK
[6] How Many Types of Bacteria Are There?