FACT – Chances are that when you think of bacteria, the first thing that comes to mind is a nasty little germ just waiting to infect you and cause a severe sickness. While even though we have only identified a very small number of bacteria thought to exist on the earth, this is true for a very small portion of identified bacteria. The majority of bacteria are not only beneficial, but essential.
Bacteria are tiny single celled organisms that are ubiquitous in our world. They inhabit everything from water to soil, from Antarctic ice to deep sea geothermal vents. But did you know they also call the human body home? The average healthy adult has almost 10 times more bacterial cells on (and in) them than human cells. As you are reading this, bacteria in your intestines are creating vitamin K (necessary for blood clotting), as well as B vitamins, such as B6 and B12. Other bacteria are also helping you digest food so that your body can utilize the nutrients trapped in your latest meal.
Elsewhere in the world, bacteria are creating insulin for diabetics, being used as pesticides to control insects such as mosquitoes and potato beetles, manufacturing methane gas to generate energy, and being used to produce drugs in the pharmaceutical industry. They are fundamental ingredients in the production of yogurt, vinegar, sauerkraut, pickles, buttermilk, cottage cheese, and sourdough bread. Everyday in farmer’s fields they are transforming soil minerals into available nutrients for peas, beans, soy beans and other agricultural products.
One of the most wide-reaching jobs of nature’s little janitors is waste reduction. In the United States, wastewater treatment plant operators are dependant upon bacteria to clean up approximately 50 billion gallons of sewage every day. Bacteria are critical in the recycling process of waste materials, as they decompose waste material into compounds that can then be recycled as building block nutrients for other natural processes.
While not all bacteria are bad, it is very important to remember that “nasty little germs” are plentiful in nature. It is critical to limit the spread of bad bacteria and to practice good hygiene to combat possible illness that may be caused by bacteria. This may be accomplished in many ways, including washing hands with soap and warm water for at least 20 seconds before touching any food or food contact surface. Be sure to use cleaners, sanitizers, and disinfectants consistently and always follow the directions supplied by manufacturers.
Bacteria are the simplest of all living organisms, consequently they are not good or bad by choice. It is up to us to arm ourselves with knowledge and common sense to fight the bad and embrace the good. Together, we can keep ourselves and our environment healthy.