12 ways bacteria improve our lives, from hard drives to highrises

test tubes photo

Photo by kaibara87 via Flickr Creative Commons

When we think of bacteria, we usually think about the illness it can cause and our need to get rid of it. However, bacteria play enormously positive roles in our lives without us even thinking twice about it. As Bonnie Bassler of Princeton University put it in a TED talk, "When I look at you, I think of you as 1 or 10 percent human and either 90 or 99 percent bacterial." And back in May, we found out about research that shows exposure to a natural soil bacterium called Mycobacterium vaccae can actually increase learning behavior. But that's not the only thing smart about bacteria. Scientists are also finding myriad ways to put bacteria to work for us, rather than constantly looking at how to exterminate it. From using bacteria as tiny hard drives for data storage to engineering them to fill in concrete cracks and make our buildings last longer, there's a lot of ways mighty bacteria is improving our lives.

1. Creating Building Materials
Ginger Krieg Dosier, an assistant architecture professor at the American University of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates, chanced upon a new way to build bricks, using bacteria, sand, calcium chloride and urine.

"The process, known as microbial-induced calcite precipitation, or MICP, uses the microbes on sand to bind the grains together like glue with a chain of chemical reactions. The resulting mass resembles sandstone but, depending on how it's made, can reproduce the strength of fired-clay brick or even marble. If Dosier's biomanufactured masonry replaced each new brick on the planet, it would reduce carbon-dioxide emissions by at least 800 million tons a year," states Metropolis Magazine, which awarded the inventor first place in a design competition held last year.

There's one big side effect. The process produces large amounts of ammonia that microbes convert to nitrates, which can eventually poison groundwater supplies. That's a major downside to an otherwise environmentally friendlier process.

That's why the next manipulation of bacteria is a little more interesting -- it makes the infrastructure we already have last longer.

2. Repairing Concrete
Students at Newcastle University have created a new bacteria that can act as "glue" for cracked concrete. They've engineered it to be triggered into activity when it senses the specific pH of concrete, and it will reproduce until it fills the crack, hits the bottom of the fissure and starts to clump. After clumping begins, the cells separate into three types, one that produce calcium carbonate, one that acts as reinforcing fibers, and one that acts as glue. They three types combine and become as strong as the concrete they're filling. The bacteria can only survive when in contact with concrete, which means it won't go taking over the world. Imagine our skyscrapers lasting far longer thanks to bacteria.

3. Detecting Landmines
Bacteria can not only keep us healthy, it can also keep us safe. Scientists have devised a way to make bacteria glow when close to a landmine. Through a technique called BioBricking, scientists manipulate the DNA of bacteria and mix it into a colorless solution, which can then be sprayed in areas where landmines are suspected to exist. The solution forms green patches when it is in contact with soil, and will begin to glow if it is next to an undetonated explosive. It could make eradicating landmines far easier and safer.

4. Detecting Pollution
Beyond landmines, bacteria can help us detect pollution in a similar way -- glowing when they come into contact with a certain chemical. Researchers have been working on this kind of technology for some time, but it has only begun being used in the field in the last few years.

Swiss scientist Jan Van der Meer has shown the possibilities by testing out strains of bacteria that eat particular chemicals in oil spills. The biosensor bacteria can then show scientists where oil leaks and spills exist as they feast on their food source. The technology could be incorporated into buoy-based devices, or used for detecting other pollutants in water sources and foods.

5. Cleaning Oil Spills
As we mentioned above, some bacteria like to eat chemicals found in oil spills, which means they can be, and are, used in cleaning up oil spills as well. It's research that goes back years -- we first picked up on it back in 2005 -- but bioremediation has gotten more attention since the Gulf oil spill. Oil-eating bacteria has been used from the Gulf to spills in China. It is most definitely not a perfect solution to cleaning spills, but is one component of clean up. We still of course have to be exceedingly careful not to let oil leak in the first place.

6. Cleaning Nuclear Waste
Not only is oil clean-up a benefit from bacteria, but also nuclear waste clean-up. More specifically, it's thanks to a bacterial we usually try to avoid as much as possible: E. coli. Researchers have found that E. coli can recover uranium from tainted waters when working alongside inositol phosphate. The bacteria breaks down the phosphate, which can then bind to uranium and attach to the bacteria. The bacteria cells are then harvested to recover the uranium. The technology can be used to clean polluted water near uranium mines as well as help clean up nuclear waste.

7. Growing Packaging
Bacteria could be the solution to more sustainable packaging for transporting goods. A project called Bacs uses the bacterium acetobacter xylinum to self-assemble around an object. It literally grows into a paper-like protective shell, which is also biodegradeable of course. So by covering a fragile object with a bacterial culture, feeding it something sweet, and giving it some time to grow, you can forget the hassle of ever finding shipping materials again. It'll be awhile before a strategy like this takes a foothold in the market, but it's a wonderful idea.

8. Bacteria as Data Storage
Scientists have figured out a way to store data inside E. coli, from text to possibly even photos and video. A single gram of bacteria can store more information than a giant 900 terabyte hard drive! Researchers in Hong Kong have figured out how to compress data, store it in chunks in several organisms, and map the DNA so the information can be easily found again, like a filing system. They're calling it biocryptography. According to the researchers, this could mean a revolution in how we store data, and what's more, the information can't be hacked. Now it's a matter of figuring out what types of bacteria are best to use for such storage, how to contain it, and how to access the information after encryption.

9. Stopping Desertification
Desertification is the spread of desert ecosystems through soil erosion and loss of groundwater. It's a serious problem -- in China, desertification is claiming as much as 1,300 square miles a year, and patches of Africa and Australia are in the same dire straights. However, one novel idea would use bacteria to stop desertification.

Architect Magnus Larsson proposesusing bacteria-filled balloons to turn the Sahara dunes into a 6000km-long desert-break. By flooding the area with balloons filled a bacterium commonly found in wetlands, Bacillus pasteurii, which produces a kind of natural cement, Larsson suggests that the bacteria could get into the sand, and create a hardened wall that would stop the dunes from spreading further.

Obviously, it's just an idea so far. But the potential for using bacteria to stop the spread of deserts is there.

10. Bacteria for Methane
Bacteria is definitely a major player in the search for sustainable biofuels. Over the past few years, we've seen more and more work coming out with utilizing bacteria for different parts of the biofuels production process or dealing with turning waste to energy, or even storing energy.

Researchers are looking in to using bacteria to store energy -- specifically having them eat electrons and turn it to methane, which can be burned with an 80% efficiency. Supposedly this concept is just a few years from being scaled to commercial production.

11. Cheaper Cellulosic Ethanol
The bacteria in compost heaps could help us create cheaper cellulosic ethanol, or plant-waste-to-energy conversion. Researchers from Guildford developed a new strain of bacteria that can aid in the processing of cellulosic ethanol, making the procedure more efficient and less costly than traditional fermentation processes.

Compost pile-bacteria is one route, but another is heat-seeking bacteria. Back in 2007, researchers refined a heat-seeking rod-shaped bacterium of the geobacillus family, which is 300 times more effective at making ethanol than its wild strain counterpart. Considering we haven't heard much about it in three years, we aren't sure it's a solution, but perhaps research is still underway.

12. E. coli for Diesel Fuel
That notorious E. coli seems to be constantly more useful when put to the right tasks, and that includes creating biofuel. Focusing on using agricultural or wood waste as the sugar source for the fuel, the bacteria feeds and creates biofuel as waste.

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