Bigger isn’t always better! Today, we’re going to reveal how some of the tiniest living things on Earth contribute to our economic success. By the end of this lesson you’ll understand the economic importance of bacteria in our everyday lives.

What Are Bacteria?

Beneath the world we see everyday lies a mysterious ecosystem hidden by its size. With a microscope we are able to see the world of bacteria, tiny single-celled organisms with very simple cell structure. They lack a nucleus, or a compartment that contains their DNA, which our cells do have, making them different from any other type of cell.

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These microorganisms are incredibly diverse, living in all environments on Earth. But don’t be fooled by their size, bacteria are incredibly important for human life. Although we normally think of bacteria as problematic, causing infections, some live in harmony with our body, protecting us from disease, regulating our metabolism, and keeping our digestive system healthy.

People have also harnessed the power of bacteria to help clean our water and create medicine, clean energy, food, and more. Bacteria are cheap and easy to grow, and reproduce quickly, making them an economic choice for many industries. Today, we’re going to look at some of the ways people use bacteria.

Sewage Treatment

How much water did you use today? You’ve probably flushed the toilet, washed your hands, and washed dishes multiple times already. Where does that water go? Ultimately, wastewater, or sewage, flows through our pipes and ends up at a water treatment plant, which cleans the water and recycles it. Although there are many methods used to sort out solid wastes and purify the water, bacteria are a key component.

Wastewater treatment plants use bacteria to clean sewage
wastewater treatment plant

Bacteria are able to decompose or break down material into individual chemical components. Sewage plants create conditions in the wastewater that optimize bacteria growth, allowing them to get to work on our waste. Many types of bacteria are involved in water treatment depending on the technology used. In municipal wastewater treatment plants, the phylum Proteobacteria are usually the most common. This method of water purification is cheap and efficient, since bacteria reproduce quickly and without human intervention.

Antibiotics

If you’ve ever had strep throat, or another ailment caused by harmful bacteria, your doctor probably prescribed you antibiotics. Antibiotics are chemicals that inhibit the growth of bacteria. They only work on bacteria, so it’s important you specifically have a bacterial infection before using them.

It turns out that some bacteria produce antibiotics to kill other bacteria. In nature, these chemicals function to knock out the competition. Bacteria, like all other organisms, need space, food, and other resources to reproduce. When a bacteria produces an antibiotic, it prevents other bacteria from encroaching on its territory. As humans, we can purify the antibiotics made and give them as medicine when a harmful bacteria invades our body.

Some antibiotics are created by bacteria
antibiotics

For example, Streptomyces is a genus of bacteria that makes many of the antibiotics we use today. Tetracycline is produced by the bacteria Streptomyces aureofaciens and is used to treat many conditions, such as acne, urinary tract infections, pneumonia, and others. Antibiotics save millions of lives each year, preventing the extraordinary costs associated with medical treatment.

Energy Production

Clean energy is a hot topic these days. Scientists agree that burning fossil fuels is destroying our ecosystem, but they are still looking for clean alternatives to replace them. One surprising avenue for this solution is bacteria. Scientists have created renewable fuel cells that use bacteria to produce hydrogen gas. These bacteria are referred to as exoelectrogenic.

Exoelectrogenic bacteria are special because they move tiny, charged particles called electrons around outside the cell. The movement of electrons helps create the hydrogen gas needed for the fuel cells. Only certain bacteria are able to do this.

Hydrogen gas can be burned instead of fossil fuels to create energy. But instead of releasing pollutants and excess carbon dioxide, burning hydrogen gas only releases water vapor. Although this method is still being investigated, it could provide a cheap, clean source of energy to fuel our growing economy.

Food

Who doesn’t love a cheesy pizza? Although it might seem gross at first, cheese and other dairy products are made from bacterial cultures and milk. During cheese production, first a bacterial culture is added to milk, creating chunks or curds. The curds can then be separated out and heated, molded, salted, and formed into specific types of cheese. The final step is aging of the cheese. In this step, bacteria grow and reproduce, creating the unique smell and taste of different cheeses. Several different types of bacteria are used to make cheese, such as Lactobacillus, Lactococcus lactis, and Streptococcus thermophilus.

Aging of cheese in a factory
cheese production

Yogurt is made in a similar way. After heating the milk to cool any unwanted pathogens, the milk is cooled to promote coagulation into the thick mixture we’re familiar with. Specific types of bacteria are introduced that ferment, or metabolize, the sugars found in milk into lactic acid. The lactic acid is responsible for the tangy flavor of yogurt.

Lesson Summary

Bacteria are an economic source of production of many products for humans, since they reproduce quickly and are easy and inexpensive to grow. Bacteria are used to decompose human waste in sewage, cleaning our water for recycling. They are also used to produce antibiotics, which are revolutionary in saving lives from infection. Hydrogen gas can be produced by exoelectrogenic bacteria, which is then burned like fossil fuels to create clean energy. Bacteria are even used to create foods like cheese and yogurt through fermentation.