See the photos from Ari’s trip to Boothbay, Maine, and David Emerson’s lab at Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences:
Bacteria eat all kinds of things. When industry put those tiny appetites to work, it’s called applied bacteriology. Here are just a few of the things these ancient organisms eat, and how bacteria are being put to work to solve problems in our modern world.
Sewage. Derek Lovley at the University of Massachusetts Amherst is studying a bacterium called Geobacter. Geobacter has an appetite for human waste. Lovley thinks Geobacter could be put to work in sewage-treatment plants, gobbling up waste and generating electicity.
Styrofoam. In 2009, Taiwanese high school student Tseng I-Ching, then 16, won the Intel International Science Fair for her discovery that a bacterium isolated from the guts of mealworm beetles would break down polystyrene, better known as Styrofoam. In Japan and Ireland, scientists have patented Styrofoam-disposal based on the bacterium Pseudomonas putida.
Sulphur. In 2010, a team scientists from McMaster University discovered two bacteria species working together to get their energy from the sulphur produced by mining. Rather than competing for the same energy source, Acidithiobacillus ferrooxidans and Acidiphilium spp. appear to be cooperating, each living off the byproducts of the other. In the process, they were reducing the toxic acid runoff from the mining operation.
Citizen Science Connections:
Bacteria are apparently happy to eat your belly-button lint. The citizen-science project Belly Button Biodiversity has finished Phase 1. Five hundred people have swabbed their belly buttons and sent the swabs off to be cultured. Now Phase 2 is beginning, and they can use your help analyzing the data. At the Wildlife of Your Body website, you can find out how to participate.