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Keeping Perspective

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on bacteria and viruses, that is.

Most of the postings in Biosciences discuss the negative effects of microorganisms' activities on humans. Sort of like the evening news, always dwelling on the bad stuff..... I thought it might be fun to point out that the majority of bacteria are actually beneficial to us.

Bacteria play a vital role in the function of ecosystems, making major contributions to the cycling of carbon through decomposition and photosynthesis, as well as nitrogen and sulfur. If it weren't for bacteria (in combination with the fungi) we would soon be head high in plant and animal waste. This, of course, is not to mention their commercial uses in: antibiotic production (from actinomycetes), vinegar, amino acids, enzymes, cheese, and yogurt. Bacteria produce cheese and yogurt by fermenting lactose (a sugar) into lactic acid, which causes milk proteins to coagulate. Yum!

Of all the living organisms, bacteria are the only ones capable of turning atmospheric nitrogen into a useable nutrient for other organisms. There is no terrestrial source of nitrogen, which is an essential component of every protein in your body and every nucleotide of your DNA. Without bacteria, life on Earth as we know it would not be possible.

Viruses, on the other hand are not so useful. All require a host organism and most are discovered because they cause a disease in that host. Worldwide losses due to viral diseases of agricultural and horticultural crops total about $15 billion annually. ;) I can't say that much about animal viruses because I don't know that much about them. :P

Anyone else have any interesting tidbits on how microorganisms are useful to humans?

Edited by Liriodendron Tulipifera
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Viruses have the potential to be VERY useful because they can infiltrate cells and change how those cells work. DNA viruses like herpes are usually used in gene therapy: the virus is encoded with a change that needs to be made to the host's DNA and released into the body. Many genetic disorders can be treated this way.

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Lactobacillus and pediococcus are essential for producing Belgian ales; Clostridium botulinum produces a marvelous wrinkle-eliminator (that's a kind of marginal use in my opinion, but de gustibus). Bacillus thuringiensis is useful for whacking irritating garden bugs. Cowpox virus is somewhat useful, and reportedly GB virus type C is too, if you're HIV positive. If there were a virus that attacked locusts and only locusts, it would be useful. I suppose it must be hard to cook up a carefully engineered killer virus to get rid of pests. And, needless to say, there are zillions of useful microorganismic fungi, especially saccharomyces cerevisiae and s. bayanus.

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Eventually I'll have a near-total artificially made body (minus the brain, of course,) and won't have to worry about bacteria or viruses.

If you want some real long-term perspective thats about as positive as you can get, I think.

Realistically, since we're reaching the limits of what we can do with chemicals to defeat bactera/viruses, gene therapy will come into the fore in the near future as the best way to treat really dangerous viruses and the like.

Mmm...genetic alterations.

Edited by Pancho Villa
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Eventually I'll have a near-total artificially made body (minus the brain, of course,) and won't have to worry about bacteria or viruses.

Well, you may be right about bacteria and viruses, but since fungi can degrade anything made of carbon (including jet fuel and compact discs), I'd say the hydrocarbons in plastic don't stand too much long-term chance.

And Cryptococcus neoformans might play some role there in the remaining biological material, although I would not wish that disease organism on my worst enemy.

David, I did not know that there were bacteria involved in beer production! I thought it was strictly a fungal fermentation process. In ter e sting....... (taps fingers together, evil "Mr Burns" smile).

"And, needless to say, there are zillions of useful microorganismic fungi."

Never were truer words spoken, my friend!

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David, I did not know that there were bacteria involved in beer production! I thought it was strictly a fungal fermentation process. In ter e sting....... (taps fingers together, evil "Mr Burns" smile).
The odd thing is that pediococcus is normally a serious brewery infection to be avoided like the plague, but leave it to the Belgians to craft a fine ale based on a brewing infection.
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Crrrrrazy!

Speaking of bacterial infections of beer, do I have a great story.

Several years ago some teaching assistant colleagues of mine made beer with the mycology students. This is always a favorite exercise for the students because if they are 21, they get to take the beer home at the end of the semester. And it is usually very good beer. Problem is, some of the bottles always become contaminated. It's hard enough to keep everything sterile on one's own, but when it's a class exercise with 25 people handing everything, it becomes even more difficult. So, of course, some of the bottles became contaminated. This was noticed, but instead of cleaning the bottles up right away, they were left in my office, the mycological herbarium. Thankfully, at the other end of my office, which happens to be a very large room with lots of cabinets between me and the bottles.

After the first hot summer day the following year, I returned to find an interesting sight (and smell) one morning. There had been some commotion at the other end of the room. One of the windows was open, and there was water everywhere. I hadn't remembered it raining the night before??! And why did the janitors knock over all the books on the shelf on their morning cleanup of the room?

As it turns out, most of the bottles had developed so much pressure inside that with the recent temperature increase, they had exploded at the necks, the force of the explosion embedding some of them upside down in the ceiling, the caps firmly affixed. Of course, there was contaminated beer everywhere, not to mention the stench.

I, of course, was not the person in latex gloves and a makeshift garbage bag coat cleaning up the mess. :P

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