How often do you really think about bacteria? Microscopic organisms make up the vast majority of life on Earth, and there are some scientists who consider their potential as staggering. Our tiny, single-celled companions have a wide range of properties and uses, for example, expelling gold or making their own alcohol. The microbial world is surreal and fascinating, of which there can be no doubt. Here are ten of the weirdest scientific discoveries and experiments involving bite-sized insects.
Related: 10 Deadly Viruses And Bacteria Created In Labs
10 The microbe that expels gold
Cupriavidus metallidurans it is a rather strange organism. The tiny bacterium gobbles up metallic compounds and essentially expels gold nuggets.
This unusual property is derived from how C. metalidurans interacts with its environment. The soils in which it lives are full of toxic minerals such as copper and gold. Both metals are harmful in large amounts, but copper is essential for the microbe to survive. The bacteria then take minerals from the soil and convert them into a less dangerous form.
If there is too much gold present, C. metalidurans it uses an enzyme known as CopA to prevent the absorption of toxic compounds. “This ensures that fewer copper and gold compounds enter the cell interior,” explained lead author Professor Dietrich H. Nies.
“The bacteria are poisoned less and the enzyme that pumps the copper can remove the excess copper without hindrance. Another consequence: gold compounds that are difficult to absorb are transformed in the outer area of the cell into harmless gold nuggets a few nanometers in size.
9 100-million-year-old bacteria unearthed from the ocean floor
In July 2020, scientists announced that they have successfully recovered bacteria from the seafloor of the Pacific Ocean that are believed to be more than 100 million years old. These microbes are believed to be the oldest known organisms on Earth.
The record-breaking microbes include ten major groups of bacteria that lie dormant more than 200 feet (70 meters) below the seafloor. The international research vessel JOIDES Resolution excavated clay samples under the seabed in which the bacterium was discovered.
After millions of years deprived of nutrients, scientists were shocked to discover that 99% of microbes survived. The researchers incubated the organisms in a laboratory for 557 days, feeding them carbon and nitrogen sources such as ammonia, acetates, and amino acids.
8 Spiteful treatment towards members of the lazy colony
Oddly enough, the evidence suggests that bacteria behave spitefully when their peers refuse to push themselves. Marooned microbes have been known to deliberately harm themselves to get revenge on inactive members of the colony.
As explained in a 2022 report in PLOS Computational Biology, colonies of bacteria survive by producing vital chemicals, such as enzymes that break food down into nutrients. How much they earn is decided by a behavior pattern known as quorum sensing. When microbes feel like they are surrounded by a lot of their peers, they make fewer enzymes. But some freeloading bugs refuse to do anything and instead try to feast on the work of others.
In this scenario, the scientists were surprised to learn that the other bacteria would also reduce their chemical production. The result of all this is that none of the microbes have enough to eat, and the entire colony may end up dying. As the researchers put it, microbes essentially commit “evolutionary suicide” to get rid of their idle companions.
“We didn’t expect to see this behavior, which could even be called ‘spiteful,'” explained Dr. Andrew Eckford, one of the study’s key authors. “But it indicates that quorum sensing is a remarkably flexible tool for fairness enforcement.”
7 2000 generations of bacteria shed light on the scientific dilemma
Evolution is a fascinating process. It’s the reason any of us are here today, instead of just single-celled organisms floating in the waters. And yet the process remains a mystery.
How much is determined by the diversity of the gene pool, or do random mutations play a major role? It’s an age-old biological debate. Except now, with the help of bacteria, Michigan State University scientists might be one step closer to solving the riddle.
In just under a year, the researchers bred more than 2,000 generations of E.coli microbes The bacteria were divided into 72 populations, each with a different level of genetic diversity. The team tested their ability to compete for nutrients in different generations. Fifty generations later, the most diverse populations had a clear advantage. But for 500 generations, the genetic mutations meant that the differences between the groups “didn’t matter anymore.” Some food for thought in the ongoing evolutionary debate.
6 Microbes in the gut make their own alcohol
Scientists have long warned about the damage alcohol can do to our internal organs. But in 2019, researchers in Beijing discovered a drunken microbe that lives in the gut, producing alcohol in large quantities.
The drink-loving bug was first detected in a patient with an unusual condition known as auto-brewery syndrome (ABS). People with ABS can get drunk after eating sugar. The ailment is often due to a buildup of yeast in the intestines, but in this case, the scientists determined it was a “superstrain” of bacteria.
The microbe in question is called Klebsiella pneumoniae, and evidence suggests that it may be linked to fatty liver disease in people who do not drink alcohol. More research is needed, but as the scientists point out, understanding the cause of a medical condition opens up the possibility of treatment.
5 A treatment for gluten intolerance or a sign of extraterrestrial life
In October 2022, scientists announced that they had discovered some potentially revolutionary new strains of bacteria lurking in a cave hundreds of meters underground. So why are these underground insects so exciting? Well, the researchers, based in the US, Algeria and Sweden, believe they could be used to treat gluten intolerance.
“We found strains that can produce antimicrobial substances or that can break down gluten, a substance that can cause inflammatory reactions in the intestines of many people,” explained Natuschka Lee. “It was also discovered that the bacteria can tolerate the extreme conditions found in our digestive system.”
But that is not all. Finding bacteria in an underground cave is another sign that life can survive even in extreme conditions: darkness, isolation, with little access to nutrients. All of which, scientists say, points to the possibility of undiscovered microbial life beneath the surface of Mars.
4 The eyelash-sized bacterium is the largest ever discovered
Most bacteria are a fraction of a micrometer in size, but the largest ever discovered is actually visible to the naked eye. Found on mangrove leaves in a swamp in Guadalupe, thiomargarita magnifica challenges what scientists believed to be the upper limit of microbial growth. Their models claim that no microbe should be able to survive at that size, but it’s clear that life finds a way.
“To put it in context, it would be like a human meeting another human as high as Mount Everest,” said study co-author Jean-Marie Volland.
Apart from the size, you magnify it has several other unusual properties. Most bacteria have their DNA floating around inside, but this colossal strain stores its genetic material in compartments. It also contains three times as many genes, with hundreds of thousands of complex copies of the genome spread throughout the cell.
But the main thing that has left scientists scratching their heads is how bacteria can grow to a relatively enormous size.
3 Rare Earth Element Mining
When it comes to rare earth elements, bacteria are better miners than humans. So say researchers at Pennsylvania State University, who believe the protein lanmodulin could play a key role in resource extraction and green technology.
Rare earth elements are some of the most vital materials in the modern world. From smartphone components to electric vehicles, even if you haven’t heard of metals like neodymium and dysprosium, we’re all surrounded by them. Neodymium is particularly important because it can be added to iron to make incredibly powerful magnets.
But for now, these materials are proving difficult and expensive to extract. That’s where microbes come in. Lanmodulin is part of a family of proteins produced by methylotrophic bacteria. These proteins stick to certain rare earth metals and stick to them with phenomenal strength, 100 million times stronger than their binding to other metals. The Penn State team hopes to use this unprecedented binding property to revolutionize clean rare earth production.
2 Scientists teach microbes to play tic tac toe
Thanks to researchers from the Spanish National Research Council, you can now play tic tac toe against genetically modified bacteria.
The European team taught a variety of E.coli to play the game in a weird but potentially useful scientific way. They modified the insects to behave like synapses in the brain, designing “neural networks” out of micro-sized organisms.
As the synthetic biologist Alfonso Jaramillo said new scientist, this strange experiment “means that bacteria behave in the same way as an electronic component called a memristor that is used to create computer chips that mimic how synapses work in a brain.” Oddly enough, the group says it opens the door for many future uses, such as creating smart microbiomes or creating living materials.
1 fighting cancer
Cancer is one of the most debilitating and deadly conditions on the planet today. The progress made in fighting him is incredible, and yet there is still a long way to go.
But imagine a future in which cancer can simply “turn off.” In March 2023, immunologists at Columbia University had the wild idea of using bacteria as a possible treatment for cancer. The genetically modified insects work their way into the tumor and trigger an immune system response by releasing chemokine proteins.
The immune system reacts differently to different chemokines. In a mouse trial, the bacteria were engineered to attract T cells, which attack the tumor, and dendritic cells, which essentially help the T cells better fight cancer.
“My graduate student, Thomas [Savage], had the idea to potentially use this platform to deliver chemokines,” explained author Dr. Nicholas Arpaia. “Through decades of research that allowed us to understand how an immune response develops, [we’re] develop therapies that specifically target each of those discrete steps.”
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