Bacteria You Can Love
Wrongly feared only as agents of disease, many bacteria are allies in our quest for health.
Here are two examples of bacteria we can celebrate as friends. Look at the good they can do for us!
Water and power specialists: Obtaining clean water is a worldwide health concern. What if raw sewage could be converted into clean water, while producing electricity during the process? New Scientist has good news: bacteria are being recruited to do both. Inventors in Boston have a prototype that seems almost miraculous:
THEY’RE miraculous in their own way, even if they don’t quite turn water into wine. Personal water treatment plants could soon be recycling our waste water and producing energy on the side.
Last month, Boston-based Cambrian Innovation began field tests of what’s known as a microbial fuel cell at the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Maryland. Called BioVolt, in one day it can convert 2250 litres of sewage into enough clean water for at least 15 people. Not only that, it generates the electricity to power itself – plus a bit left over.
Think of the potential for third-world countries where electricity and clean water are unavailable. The company believes that personal treatment plants could become as common as rooftop solar panels. The inventors couldn’t do it without help from some minute intelligently-designed friends that take what we cast off and use it for food.
BioVolt uses strains of Geobacter and another microbe called Shewanella oneidensis to process the sludge. Its proprietary mix of organisms has one key advantage – the bacteria liberate some electrons as they respire, effectively turning the whole set-up into a battery. This has the added benefit of slowing bacterial growth, so that at the end of the process you have electricity and no microbe cake.
“Microbe cake” has been a problem with existing water treatment plants; it needs to be treated and disposed of in landfills. The new BioVolt system controls the microbe reproduction rate so that they don’t exceed the process, and captures the electrons for power generation. Reporter Sally Adee tells of other companies working on microbial systems that can even remove pharmaceuticals from water, process tons of pig waste, or generate power from wastewater from breweries.
Antibiotics right under your nose: Hospitals are very worried about “superbugs” that have become immune to all of our known antibiotics. What a surprise it was to find a bacterium in the human nose that produces an antibiotic that conquers one of the worst of them! Nature tells about it:
There is immense clinical concern about the rise of antibiotic-resistant ‘superbugs’ — such as strains of the bacterium Staphylococcus aureus known as methicillin-resistant S. aureus (MRSA) that have developed resistance to several key antibiotics. Faced with the growth of resistant strains of bacteria, finding more antibiotics is an urgent necessity. Most antibiotics have been isolated from soil-living bacteria, but on page 511, Zipperer et al. identify an antibiotic produced by a bacterial resident of the human nose that is active against strains of MRSA.
It makes sense that among the thousand species of bacteria that live inside the human body (the human microbiota), there are some equipped to compete against invaders. The new species from the nose, called Staphylococcus lugdunensis, produces a compound the discoverers called lugdunin. This compound works as a topical antibiotic in mice, fighting MRSA and other pathogens without developing resistance. The scientists believe that many more such antibiotic species remain to be discovered, already at work inside us.
We need to look at microbes differently. They are not our ancestors. They are not primitive forms of life. They are here on Earth as helpers, performing many vital functions in the ecology. Unfortunately, ever since the Fall and the curse, a few have gotten out of control or mutated into harmful forms, as the Creator removed some (but not all) of His protections as judgment on sin. Originally, everything was in balance. Proliferation of one kind of bacterium was regulated through a push-and-pull mechanism by other organisms in the ecology. Pathogens arose when regulatory processes were broken, or when species beneficial in one environment invaded the wrong environment (such as the human gut). Creation microbiologist Dr. Joe Francis at The Master’s College has described several intriguing examples—including cholera—that can be explained this way. In their right ecological niche (e.g., estuaries), cholera microbes perform a beneficial function. In fact, researchers at the University of Oregon just filmed cholera microbes swimming in the guts of zebrafish, where they live normally (PhysOrg).
For evolutionists who want to mock this viewpoint, we would respond that they have a far greater problem: explaining the de novo origin of any form of microbial life. Bacteria are equipped with complex structures like flagella and genetic codes, read by molecular machines. Like chemical labs, they produce many kinds of complex organic compounds. They can divide, reproducing all their parts with high fidelity. We never see anything that complex and purpose-driven arising by natural causes. So while creationists are challenged to explain pathogens, our Biblical understanding would see all life forms as intelligently designed and originally “very good.” The few specific examples in Genesis of pain and suffering after sin entered the world provide just a glimpse of how good things became agents of judgment (e.g., thorns as distorted leaves).
With this understanding, design-thinking scientists can try to reverse the effects of the curse in some instances. We can look at microbes and viruses as intelligently designed allies for the most part. We can try to restore the balance, and use their complex machinery to solve our problems. We can harness their abilities. If some bacteria are good at decomposing waste, we can build processing plants to take advantage of that. If some are already built to regulate other species, we can learn about their internal biochemistry tricks and put their wizardry to use where we need it or want it. This viewpoint can advance medical science. The evolutionary view of selfish organisms involved in a ‘war of all against all’ would tend to make scientists want to blast, burn and obliterate everything that causes problems. Which view do you think is bound to be more fruitful? The first microbiologist, Antony van Leeuwenhoek, was fascinated and delighted with all the wonders he observed through his microscope lenses, including bacteria. His immediate response was to glorify God; he thought they were beautiful works of the all-wise Creator.