Putting Bacteria to Work

  • By Peter Tyson
  • Posted 12.30.10
  • NOVA scienceNOW

We may think of bacteria only as something to avoid like the plague. But these single-celled organisms have proven extremely useful to science, medicine, and industry. And with genetic engineering, which enables researchers to transfer traits from one microbe to another or even create entirely new organisms, their usefulness is rapidly mounting. In this slide show, see why you should be thanking these microscopic creatures for everything from the medicines you take to the foods you eat, from the waste you generate to the gold you wear.

Launch Interactive

Bacteria help us in all kinds of ways, from fermenting foods to aiding medicine, cleaning oil spills to mining minerals.


Carlson, Robert H. 2010. Biology Is Technology: The Promise, Peril, and New Business of Engineering Life. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Fumento, Michael. 2003. Bioevolution: How Biotechnology Is Changing Our World. San Francisco: Encounter Books.

Grace, Eric S. 1997. Biotechnology Unzipped. Washington, D.C.: Joseph Henry Press.

Virtual Museum of Bacteria. A website of the Foundation of Bacteriology and the Society for Applied Microbiology. www.bacteriamuseum.org/

Fermenting foods
Wassenaar, Dr. T.M. 2005. "Good bacteria in food." From the Virtual Museum of Bacteria website. 8 March 2005. http://bacteriamuseum.org/cms/Food-And-Water-Safety/good-bacteria-in-food.html

Making lumber
Chung, Sandra. 2010. "INL scientists help harness bacteria power to brew eco-friendly plastic from waste." Idaho National Laboratory press article, 11 October 2010. https://inlportal.inl.gov/portal/server.pt?open=514&objID=1269&mode=2&featurestory=DA_561588

Aiding medicine
Anonymous. 2009. "Genetically engineered bacteria are sweet success against inflammatory bowel disease." ScienceDaily, 21 August 2009. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/08/090820204456.htm

Anonymous. 2005. "Bacteria modified to combat HIV." BBC News, 13 November 2005. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/health/4692905.stm

Venere, Emil. 2007. "Bacteria ferry nanoparticles into cells for early diagnosis, treatment." Purdue University press release, 13 June 2007. http://news.uns.purdue.edu/x/2007a/070613BashirSmartnano.html

Advancing nanotech
Anonymous. 2008. "Putting bacteria to work as tiny weavers of nanoscale biomaterials." Nanotechnology website, 11 November 2008. www.azonano.com/news.asp?newsID=8590

Fountain, Henry. 2009. "Working as a team, bacteria spin gears." The New York Times, 22 December 2009. www.nytimes.com/2009/12/22/science/22obgear.html

Powering fuel cells
Anonymous. 2009. "Harnessing bacterial production of nanomagnets." Advanced Light Source, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory press release, 30 September 2009. www.als.lbl.gov/als/science/sci_archive/193nanomagnets.html

Producing biofuels
Biello, David. 2010. "Biofuel from bacteria." Scientific American, April 2010, 21-22. www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=biofuel-from-bacteria

Steen, Eric J. et al. 2010. "Microbial production of fatty-acid-derived fuels and chemicals from biomass." Nature: 463, 559-562, 28 January 2010. www.nature.com/nature/journal/v463/n7280/abs/nature08721.html

Cleaning oil spills
Biello, David. 2010. "Slick solution: How microbes will clean up the Deepwater Horizon oil spill." Scientific American, 25 May 2010. www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=how-microbes-clean-up-oil-spills



(Fermenting foods)
© Olga Nayashkova/iStockphoto
(Combatting pests)
© Tomas Bercic/iStockphoto
(Making lumber)
© Christopher O Driscoll/iStockphoto
(Aiding medicine)
© Rey Rojo/iStockphoto
(Serving science)
© dra_schwartz/iStockphoto
(Advancing nanotech)
© Guillermo Lobo/iStockphoto
(Powering fuel cells)
© Chiara Levi/iStockphoto
(Producing biofuels)
© Linde Stewart/iStockphoto
(Cleaning oil spills)
© Danny Hooks/iStockphoto
(Eating waste)
© AVTG/iStockphoto
(Mining minerals)
© Arno Massee/iStockphoto

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