One of the fascinating things about research on microorganisms is the diversity of species and environments in which they live. Superheated material at temperatures of up to 400 degrees celsius is extruded from vents in the deep ocean. When it contacts the cold seawater, it produces porous rocks in the form called “chimneys.” This rock differs from rocks on Earth’s surface due to the pressure at those depths. Researchers from Portland State University and the University of Wisconsin found diverse microbes in hydrothermal deposits.
The researchers sampled 40 rock communities and found 3,635 species of microbes in hydrothermal deposits. The researchers were amazed at how diverse these bacterial communities are. The lead researcher Anna-Louise Reysenbach said, “At one volcano, there was so much new diversity that we hadn’t seen elsewhere.” Not only did they find new species, but they also discovered two new phyla and at least 500 new genera. In addition, the scientists found that New Zealand samples differed from those found in other places.
The design of life is so flexible that you can find living things in locations where you would not expect life to survive. It is important to note that scientists are classifying the microbes in hydrothermal deposits using the same phyla, genera, and species categories they use for life on Earth’s surface. The bacteria are not so different from surface bacteria, but they can live in environments of extreme pressures and temperatures.
We know that life forms exist in extremely cold and hot places on Earth. The design of life is exquisite, and these microorganisms support the higher life forms familiar to us. This study implies that life could exist elsewhere in the cosmos if God chose to put it there. However, there is a world of difference between finding a microbe on a distant planet or satellite and finding a sentient alien being as portrayed on the movie screen. The complexity of life and the amazing design of our own bodies shows God’s creative wisdom. I am “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalms 139:14). As we learn more about the diverse places where life can exist, we are amazed at how sophisticated life design is.
Trillions of bacteria live in the intestines of every person. Perhaps more disturbing is the suggestion that there are ten times as many bacterial cells in the human body as there are human cells. Remember that bacterial cells are smaller than human cells, but still, that’s a lot. Nobody has actually counted them all, but scientists are certain that the bacterial cells outnumber our body cells. Even though that may sound shocking, the truth is we couldn’t live without them. The collection of microbes inside you is called the microbiome, and it makes food digestion possible and plays an essential role in our immune system.
Every time we eat food, we take in bacteria. Your gut biome acts as the first line of defense in a fully-functional immune response. People often refer to “good bacteria” and “bad bacteria.” That distinction may be misleading because the helpful or harmful ways of those microbes may depend on the circumstances.
Gut bacteria work in the breakdown of carbohydrates. Research indicates that obese people have less diversity in their gut bacteria than lean people have. On the other hand, when gut bacteria digest foods such as eggs and beef, they produce a compound that can boost heart-disease risk. Some germs can make you sick, while others keep you healthy. Sometimes the same bacterial cells in the human body can do either, depending on circumstances.
Helicobacter pylori bacteria are known for causing ulcers in the digestive tract. They are present in the microbiome of half the world’s population. Most people don’t have a problem with stomach ulcers, but it is painful and dangerous for the small number who do. However, researchers have found that the absence of Helicobacter bacteria in the gut may lead to diseases of the esophagus, such as reflux and cancers. Other research has shown that Helicobacter species may help the immune system, even though they may lead to inflammation and ulcers.
So the “good” and “bad” distinction between bacteria may be a false dichotomy. Whether they are beneficial or harmful depends. Bacteria considered “bad” might be neutral or even helpful in certain situations. A person’s health status, stress, diet, and genetics all influence how we react to various bacterial cells in the human body.
Another beneficial use of bacteria could come from research into using them as a medical delivery system to regulate autoimmune diseases. There is a clear answer for those who consider bacteria as all bad and question why God would create them. As science continues to explore the complexity of the system of life, we see God’s wisdom in all of creation.
People have a fascination with wood, and we admire the beauty of wooden tables and furniture. Our love for wood is not just aesthetic because wood is also very practical for many uses. However, some people were concerned about bacteria on wooden toys and especially food contamination by bacteria on wooden cutting boards. For that reason, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) recommended using plastic cutting boards rather than wooden ones.
The USDA said that it seemed to be common sense that non-porous surfaces like plastic would be less likely to hold bacteria and would be easier to keep clean and germ-free. For years, they advised against wooden cutting boards. However, they had to admit that they had no scientific studies to support that recommendation. It was just common sense.
Microbiologists at the University of Wisconsin in Madison tried to find decontamination techniques to make wood as safe as plastic. They found that if they inoculated wooden boards with either salmonella, listeria, or E.coli (all food poisoning agents), 99% of the bacteria were gone after 12 hours at room temperature. However, when they treated a plastic surface in the same way, the bacteria count increased after 12 hours. The bottom line is that, when left overnight, the bacteria on plastic multiplied, but the bacteria on wooden cutting boards died.
The researchers concluded that “wooden cutting boards are not a hazard to human health, but plastic cutting boards may be.” They proved that wood has anti-bacterial properties that plastic polymers don’t have. The researchers tested maple, birch, beech, black cherry, basswood, butternut, and American black walnut with the same results. Also, they found that bacteria on wooden cutting boards died whether the wood was new or old.
There are two things we can learn from this experiment. First, the USDA officials said they based their recommendation of acrylic or other non-porous materials on common sense and not scientific data. They had not done any research. When the scientific data came in, it showed that common sense was wrong. This is an excellent example of why we should “follow the science.” Secondly, for thousands of years, people had cut meat and prepared foods on surfaces made of the natural wood that God gave us. This experiment shows that the Designer of wood knew what He was doing.
The ship once thought to be unsinkable and made for an infinite existence not only sank but is also being dissolved. It is losing hundreds of pounds of iron each day thanks to metal-eating bacteria and deep-sea currents. As a result, the Titanic is disappearing from the bottom of the ocean.
A company known as OceanGate Expeditions is starting a project to visit the Titanic wreckage annually to monitor and chronicle the ship’s deterioration. It has been 109 years since the ship sank. Since researchers discovered it in 1985, the mast is gone, and the ship’s railing is about to collapse. The captain’s bathtub has dissolved, and the crow’s nest from which the lookout shouted, “Iceberg, straight ahead!” is gone.
What most of us don’t realize is that there are bacteria in the ocean that consume iron. The wreck of the Titanic is disappearing more and more each day. Researchers are interested in recording this process to understand how other shipwrecks, such as nuclear submarines, are broken down. Wealthy tourists are funding the Titanic research, but scientists are interested in underwater ecosystems spawned by shipwrecks like the Titanic.
As the Titanic is disappearing, it reminds us of the insignificance of human artifacts. Therefore, we should not place our hope in man-made things. Ships, buildings, and monuments will all eventually be reduced to dust. This design of Earth allows the recycling of resources. It also underlines the importance of putting your trust in “treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust does corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal” (Matthew 6:20).
The colonies of microbes living on and in our bodies make up what is called our microbiome. The bacteria outnumber our own body cells by a ratio of ten to one. Your body is host to 100 trillion bacteria of at least 10,000 different species. Before you start to worry about that, most of the bacteria will not hurt you. More than that, you couldn’t live without a healthy microbiome.
Some bacteria are essential to make our immune system work to prevent infection. Others make it possible for us to digest the food we eat. Bacteria are on our skin, in our lungs, in our mouths, especially in our gut. Your digestive system needs a good balance of bacteria for proper digestion. Some medical experts think that an imbalance of gut flora (bacteria) leads to irritable bowel syndrome and Crohn’s disease.
There has been a boom in sales of probiotics in pills, liquids, and yogurts in recent years. These contain bacteria that may help your digestive system, but the amounts and types of bacteria may not necessarily be the ones needed for your system. Everyone has a somewhat different microbiome, and, as we recently posted, it all starts in our mother’s womb. Breastfeeding further adds beneficial bacteria to the baby’s flora.
When we take antibiotics, we can kill some beneficial bacteria resulting in digestive and other health problems. Science is trying to determine what is required for a healthy microbiome so that doctors can treat various issues that many times come from our poor choices regarding our health and diet. God designed a system that works, and we are just beginning to recognize that and learn how to take care of it.
The ancient Israelites’ diet consisted of very little meat, and most of that came from animals they raised. That was not true in the rest of the world. For many people in China and Africa, survival meant hunting animals and using them for food. We now know that many of the animals people ate were intermediate hosts for viruses. A virus can exist for many generations in a wild animal and mutate until it can jump to human populations, creating zoonotic diseases. The list of viral and bacterial diseases that have originated in wildlife grows constantly. A partial list includes SARS, MERS, Ebola, AIDS, Zika, Lyme Disease, rabies, swine flu, and COVID-19.
Wet markets, common in parts of Asia and Africa, are a significant source of zoonotic diseases. There animals, including rats, snakes, birds, bats, and monkeys, are kept in cages and killed when people purchase them for food. The filthy environment allows saliva, urine, and feces to become mixed with the blood of animals slaughtered on the spot. Experts say 376 wildlife species are known hosts to zoonotic pathogens, and at least 700,000 different viruses have the potential to jump to human populations. Christian Walzer, executive director of health for the Wildlife Conservation Society, calls wet markets “cauldrons of contagion.”
In Old Testament times, the Jews had very strict rules about what meat they could eat and how to prepare it. One of the priest’s jobs was to inspect the meat that people consumed to make sure it conformed to specific rules preventing zoonotic diseases. That was the world in which Christianity began, and early Christians benefitted from the rules they inherited. The instruction of the apostles was not to eat blood or animals that had been strangled. (See Acts 15:20,29 and Acts 21:25.)
In Acts 10:11-16, we read the account of God telling Peter, “What God has cleansed you should not call common.” The message was that all people are precious to God, but it also implied that there was no longer religious significance to eating the meat of various animals. The dietary laws that God gave Israel centuries before were “nailed to the cross” of Christ (Colossians 2:13-17). However, what is religiously acceptable is not always biologically advisable.
It seems that the battle of the 21st century may be zoonotic diseases caused by eating animals that carry viruses to which humans are not immune. There were good hygienic reasons for the instructions God gave to ancient Israel.
Bacteria are single-cell microorganisms that we do not think of as having social behavior. However, scientists are studying Myxococcus xanthus bacteria working together. They are rod-shaped bacteria that live in the soil and organize into structures of thousands of cells to hunt food or to survive when food is not available.
Myxococcus xanthus bacteria are predators that eat other microbes. When they organize into 3-D structures, they can be visible to the naked eye. In this complex form, they swarm toward their prey in a single mass of bacteria working together in “ripples.” You can see them on the left side of the picture.
To capture their food, the swarms of Myxococcus xanthus microbes secrete enzymes that kill and digest the prey and then take in their nutrients. These predator bacteria hunt together because individually they can’t produce enough of the antibiotics to kill the prey, but together they are deadly to other microbes.
When there is a food shortage, scientists still find these bacteria working together to survive. They form a structure called “fruiting bodies” as pictured on the right. In that form, they can survive for years if necessary. As single cells, they would not survive.
Studying how these microbes work can help scientists design new antibiotics or pest-resistant seeds for agriculture. Myxococcus xanthus rods are alive and can crawl, so their movement applies the laws of physics and the biological laws that govern living things. Studying these bacteria may help materials scientists gain new ideas for constructing liquid crystal display screens in electronic devices.
We learn much by looking at what is functional in the natural world. A wonder-working hand has moved before us and gives us tools for developing new materials to improve our lives. Also, bacteria working together can serve as a lesson to remind us that humans can accomplish more when we work together.
Many years ago in Alaska, I had a discussion with a biologist who was studying the Alaskan soils. His study revolved around the fact that Alaska has very little soil and what it does have is developing. The lack of soil in Alaska has limited plant growth and made the ecology dependent on migrating salmon. Soils are complex mixtures of organic matter, minerals, water, air, and billions of organisms that form over hundreds of years. Good soils are vital for survival. President Franklin D. Roosevelt once said, “A nation that destroys its soils destroys itself.”
Research has shown that plants are designed to “call” for nutrients from the soil. A plant will release molecules called flavonoids, which cause bacteria in the soil to migrate into the plant and form nitrogen nodules on the roots. The nitrogen nodules generate food for the plant. If ample nitrogen is already available for the plant, it will not release the flavonoids.
This “hunger” by plants is vital to understand because many natural and human-caused processes can deplete the soil. Forest and brush fires, hurricanes, pollution, and climate change can deplete soils’ nitrogen content and kill plants. Studies of the giant sequoias in California have shown that the soil under them has twice as many bacteria as the soil under nearby sugar pines. We all know that bacteria influence human health, but bacteria also affect plant health and growth.
As our population increases and world climates change, it will become increasingly important to understand how soil allows us to feed our growing population. God’s design of the Earth includes providing the soils necessary to produce food. Good soils are vital for survival.
One of the many things that make our planet uniquely well designed is the atmosphere. Our atmosphere has the right density to burn up the 10,000 plus meteors that speed into it every year. It’s also dense enough to scatter the cosmic rays and X-rays from space, so we are protected from this deadly radiation by our Earth’s atmospheric design.
Also very important, the atmosphere is thin enough to allow light to penetrate so plants can grow. It contains the proper mix of gasses for all living things to use. There is enough oxygen for us to breathe, but not enough to cause dangerous, uncontrolled combustion. It has the right amount of carbon dioxide to allow plants to live and give us the right amount of the “greenhouse effect.” This proper amount prevents too much heat from radiating off into space, keeping Earth at a temperature that promotes life.
The atmosphere is mostly nitrogen, which is relatively inert, but plants need it to grow. Because nitrogen is inert, it’s released to the soil by bacteria and certain plants, such as legumes or by lightning or tectonic activity. The atmosphere is topped off with a layer of ozone that absorbs ultraviolet energy from the Sun to keep us from being overexposed to the harmful effects of UV rays.
We usually think of bacteria as agents of infectious disease–“germs.” However, many types of bacteria are helpful to us. The truth is, we could not survive without bacteria.
More bacterial cells are living on and in your body than there are human cells in your body. Your body has more bacterial cells than there are people in the whole world! Even more amazing, the total biomass of all bacteria in the world is greater than that of all plants and animals in the world!
Bacteria in our digestive system allow us to digest the food we eat. Good bacteria even help us fight off their less-friendly cousins. Researchers recently discovered that a human skin bacteria (Staphylococcus epidermidis) protects against skin cancer. Those bacteria produce a compound nicknamed 6-HAP, which stops DNA formation in cancer cells, but not in healthy cells. The researchers hope to use this information to develop new treatments for skin cancer.
Bacteria live everywhere in soil, water, hot springs, the deepest part of the oceans, deep in the Earth’s crust, and even in radioactive waste. Bacteria break down waste materials, including sewage and oil spills, to help keep our world clean. Industry uses bacteria to produce cheese, yogurt, ethanol, vitamins, antibiotics, and prescription drugs.
Before humans or any form of animal life could live on the Earth, there had to be a full complement of the right kinds of bacteria. An intricate system of checks and balances had to exist for things to stay in a favorable condition. We have often paid the price for upsetting the balance of the microscopic world.
Don’t forget that we could not survive without bacteria. They feed us, clean up after us, and even fight the diseases some of their cousins cause. They also show us the wisdom and intelligence of the Creator who made us, and those microbes we can’t see.