Life is tiny – bacteriology 101

academics bacteriology cell biology
By Ann D.

Bacteria, a bit unfairly, are often bad mouthed, as they tend to make the news for the diseases they cause: tuberculosis, pneumonia, cholera. From the bacteria’s point of view, however, disease is mostly an accident – they just found somewhere they can thrive. 

“Bacteria” refers to a large group of highly diverse, mostly very small, mostly free-living organisms. Bacteria can be found almost everywhere – in the soil, in the guts of all kinds of animals, and even in underwater hydrothermal vents. They are important contributors to ecological cycles, extracting nutrients from their environment and breaking down compounds that would otherwise be unusable. They eat rocks, clean up radioactive waste, and digest oil spills. They may be mobile, able to move toward nutrients and away from poisons, or sessile, when they clump and protect themselves from their environment. Their shapes are as varied as pasta, and some, like Bdellovibrio, attack other bacteria to eat their innards.

Studying bacteria thus gives insight toward a large variety of biological questions, the most fundamental of which is, “how does one live?” Because many bacteria tolerate conditions other organisms cannot, they are looked to as models for understanding the early Earth, life in space, and the limits and extremes of biology. Bacteria also help provide solutions to many practical, human-centered problems, including antibiotic development, agricultural production, reducing carbon emissions, and wastewater treatment. 

A current hot topic in organismal biology is the study of symbiosis, which asks how different species of organisms can live so tightly connected with each other – even when they may be from different domains of life, like bacteria and plants. As star players in symbiosis research, bacteria motivate the usage of biology, chemistry, physics, math, and computer science together to understand the intricacies of how two organisms interact.

Ann graduated from UC Berkeley with two degrees, one in Molecular and Cell Biology and the other in Music. They're currently pursuing a PhD in Biology at Johns Hopkins.


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