Category Archives: Bacteria

We’re All Guests Here In Smallworld

Things Every Adult Ought To Know.

Let’s ponder the Earth’s most dominant life form.

No, it’s not fans of Star Wars, Harry Potter, or Billie Eilish. It’s not Asians or Africans or Americans, North or South. It’s not cicadas (anymore, for the next 17 years or so) or mosquitos, despite what folks in their backyards on August nights might think.

It’s bacteria.

Yup.

These prokaryotic microorganisms that household cleaners and hand sanitizers are designed to eliminate from the face of this mad, mad, mad, mad world are more numerous, more plentiful, and far more resilient than any other form of life hereabouts.

Bill Bryson writes in his exquisite A Short History of Nearly Everything:

Because we humans are big and clever enough to produce and utilize antibiotics and disinfectants, it is easy to convince ourselves that we have banished bacteria to the fringes of existence. Don’t you believe it. Bacteria may not build cities or have interesting social lives, but they will be here when the Sun explodes. This is their planet, and we are on it only because they allow us to be.

So, the evolutionary lifespan of bacteria appears to stretch from the very onset of life here on Earth, 3.5 billion years ago, to the last gasp of it, ten billion or so years hence. For such little guys, bacteria are strong and stubborn critters.

I took a food safety course back when I was working in the education department at Whole Foods Market (don’t hate me, please). The thrust of the entire course was kitchen staff and front of the house food handlers should have as their overriding concern the aim of eliminating every single eensy bacterium on our hands, our utensils, our food preparation machines, our plates, our pots and pans, in short, every conceivable surface that might come in contact with the pâtés and all-natural corn dogs we’re fixin’ up.

That’s an aim so ambitious as to be impossible. We might as well try to get rid of all those pesky nitrogen molecules we fill our lungs with every time we inhale. Our success rate would be about the same. For that matter, it’d be as destructive an aim as banishing the world’s bacteria, inasmuch as nitrogen is a key building block in both DNA and plant life. So let’s not, okay?

That doesn’t mean cooks, servers, and dishwashers ought to scrap the whole notion of scrubbing their mitts after engaging in the production of Nos. 1 and/or 2 and before getting back to handling comestibles. It’s all a numbers game; we’ll get back to that.

But let’s continue pondering the overall numbers of earthly bacteria, past and present, without which it’d be curtains around here.

A couple of decades ago, a researcher named William Whitman and his team at the University of Georgia took it upon themselves to estimate how many bacteria were alive at the time on this planet. Natch, they couldn’t hope to count them all, as they came up with an awfully big number. So big we’ll have to put it into words rather than figures. The Whitman gang posited that some five million trillion trillion individual bacteria lived, breathed, and ate on Earth in the year 1998. That’s the numeral 5 followed by thirty zeros. Hell, that’s a bigger number than all the US dollars the likes of Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, and all the other plutocratic, borderline sociopathic wealth grabbers many Americans love to idolize posses or control.

In the ensuing 23 years, those bacteria have happily reproduced, of course, so the Whitman number most assuredly is greater today.

Most bacteria live in the soil or in the oceans, leaving us landlubbers with a mere several million trillion of the little buggers to contend with (or benefit from). There are plenty of them to go around.

For instance, think of how much oil we’ve pumped from beneath the Earth’s surface since the development of the first commercially successful internal combustion engine 160 or so years ago. John Jones, of the University of Aberdeen’s School of Engineering, has estimated we’ve yanked some 135 billion barrels out of wells since John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company began obsessively pumping it way back in 1870. Burnable oil, most scientists believe, results from decaying plankton, other microscopic marine life, and bacteria. The lion’s share of the biomass most assuredly is bacteria.

Or should we now start saying the bacterium’s share?

From the page on bacteria from Oxford University’s Museum of Natural History:

Bacteria survive, thrive, fight and die by the trillion every moment. They swim using nanoscopic motors, and battle with spears. They sense, communicate, remember. And as scientists discover more about these tiny organisms, it is becoming clear that bacteria wield huge influence over us, shaping Earth’s past, our present and the future for us all. We have only recently realised how much our lives are inextricably linked with the lives of bacteria. We are living in a bacterial world.

What good do bacteria do for us? Plenty good.

Each of us has ten times as many bacteria in us as actual body cells. Don’t get scared. Of the 30,000-plus species of bacteria so far identified, only 100 or so can cause humans harm. The rest of them do things like produce oxygen and enzymes in plant life, clean our ground water, fertilize our farmlands, create vitamins within our stomachs and intestines, reside in our bellies so we can digest food, ferment things (both in nature and in labs), devour potentially harmful microorganisms in nature or in industrial spills, and do any number of other things w/o which we’d be in awful shape.

But it’s those dangerous little guys — salmonella, say, or campylobacter; foodborne illnesses — that we fret over when we see our waitstaff exit the powder room.

Don’t get scared again, but this is the truth: every bite of food we take is laden with billions of bacteria. Period. No way around it. Just as every breath we take is chock-full of nitrogen. That’s the world in which we live.

So why do we want our food handlers to scrub their paws? As mentioned earlier, it’s a numbers game. The most fecund among the many species of bacteria are able to create new generations every ten to twenty minutes. To drive that point home, that means some bacteria colonies can double in size in less than the time it takes you to make your brown bag lunch in the morning.

So, if these evil little buggers — the aforementioned salmonella, campylobacter, et al — are so numerous and becoming more so by the minute, what’s the use of us even trying to ward them off?

Salmonella (R) & Campylobacter

The human body has an army of similarly minuscule cells whose sole purpose in this existence to to kick the crap out of bacterial invaders that have somehow weaseled their way into us. Three soldiers in this army are called phagocytes (meaning they eat bacteria), body cells that have been made immune by previous exposure to bacteria, and things called complement proteins. To understand precisely how these troops work, I’d need to make this post 23,000 words long and, truth is, most people think I blab on far too much in the first place, so if you’re curious about their machinations you’re welcome to do your own research.

The success of any army is almost wholly dependent on numbers. The Allies beat the Axis in World War II because most of the planet’s nations were aligned against Hitler, Tojo, and Il Duce. Hell, the Soviets lost 20 to 30 million people in that fracas while the a mere 3.6 million Germans gave up their lives for the Führer‘s deranged ambitions. Yet the Russkies and their satellite partners were among the participants in the carving up of Germany when the insanity ended on May 8, 1045. The USSR and the rest of the Allies had far outnumbered the Wehrmacht.

So it goes when the human body’s defenses sense an army of bacteria marching in on it. Which, as previously mentioned, happens every time you suck out of a straw dipped in a chocolate shake topped with whipped cream. There are more of our good guys than the bacterial army’s bad guys.

Usually.

The bacteria that come into us from our food loiter within us for some time even as our defenses go about munching or otherwise neutralizing them. But, as mentioned, bacteria can multiply rapidly. Success for our continued good health depends on our phagocytes and their buddies doing their thing quickly enough so that the reproducing bacteria don’t begin to outnumber them.

One way bacteria from that chocolate shake can win the battle is if the load carried by the ice cream or even the tainted straw is so huge that our defenses are outnumbered. Then, the body must turn to its specialized soldiers. Call them our own Navy Seals. They include fever, vomiting, and diarrhea. To mix metaphors, their purpose is to act like bouncers  trying to clear up a barroom brawl. When the melee becomes too crazy, they simply have to turn on the overhead lights and toss everybody out the door.

A common date for people to experience that dramatic ousting is Thanksgiving. Often you’ll hear folks say they had the family over for the big turkey feed and a bunch of them caught the flu. That’s likely not the case. Vomiting and diarrhea aren’t normal symptoms of the flu virus. What’s far more likely is the bird, it’s juices, the sweet taters, and all the other foods in which bacteria can thrive and create numerous generations have been sitting out of the table for a couple of hours. People have been picking at the stuff and simply overwhelming their own defenses with monster loads of campylobacter or even salmonella.

A Veritable Orgy of Frolicking Bacteria.

Good food safety practices hold that the three main factors that control bacterial growth are Time, Temperature, and Acidity. There are a couple of other factors but they aren’t in your control, so let’s ignore them. The latest research shows that bacteria reproduce most efficiently between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s why your refrigerator is set for 37 to 39 degrees. At that temperature, bacterial growth is retarded enough so that those sweet potatoes may keep for a few days, although after about a week, they’ll start looking rather psychedelic. Your freezer is set much lower: 0ºF. That slows bacterial reproduction down so much you can keep your yams frozen for a year and not see acid-trip colors on them.

As for time, foods generally can be left out for a total of four hours. Total being the key word here. You must add up all the time the food has been lingering at temps between 40 and 140. If it had been out for an hour and a half at dinner time, then put away in the fridge until the next day when it was taken and left out for another hour, that’s two and a half hours in the danger zone. Now you’re pushing your luck. And, if you eat the leftovers at room temperature, you haven’t killed off whatever bacteria resides in it through reheating, so that’s another risk you’re taking.

And, really importantly, if you haven’t washed your hands before plunging them into the mashed potatoes, you’re transferring all the bacteria swirling around in the oils on your fingers and on your nails into your food. You ain’t gonna enjoy hugging the porcelain bowl after that — a possibility that increases with each violation of good food saftey practices.

So, the takeaway is this: a few bacterial species, in sufficient numbers within us, can make us terribly ill or even kill us, but most bacteria keep us alive.

And ain’t that just like life? It’s the damnedest contradiction.

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