Skip to main content
Biology LibreTexts

Discussion topics on bacteria and archaea*#

Antibiotics: Are We Facing a Crisis?

Prokaryotes are everywhere: They readily colonize the surface of any type of material, and food is not an exception. Most of the time, prokaryotes colonize food and food-processing equipment in the form of a biofilm. Outbreaks of bacterial infection related to food consumption are common. A foodborne disease (colloquially called “food poisoning”) is an illness resulting from the consumption of contaminated food, or the pathogenic bacteria, viruses, or other parasites that contaminate food. Although the United States has one of the safest food supplies in the world, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has reported that “76 million people get sick, more than 300,000 are hospitalized, and 5,000 Americans die each year from foodborne illness.”

The characteristics of foodborne illnesses have changed over time. In the past, it was relatively common to hear about sporadic cases of botulism, the potentially fatal disease produced by a toxin from the anaerobic bacterium Clostridium botulinum. Some of the most common sources for this bacterium were non-acidic canned foods, homemade pickles, and processed meat and sausages. The can, jar, or package created a suitable anaerobic environment where Clostridium could grow. Proper sterilization and canning procedures have reduced the incidence of this disease.

While people may tend to think of foodborne illnesses as associated with animal-based foods, most cases are now linked to produce. There have been serious, produce-related outbreaks associated with raw spinach in the United States and with vegetable sprouts in Germany, and these types of outbreaks have become more common. The raw spinach outbreak in 2006 was produced by the bacterium E. coli serotype O157:H7. A serotype is a strain of bacteria that carries a set of similar antigens on its cell surface, and there are often many different serotypes of a bacterial species. Most E. coli are not particularly dangerous to humans, but serotype O157:H7 can cause bloody diarrhea and is potentially fatal.

All types of food can potentially be contaminated with bacteria. Recent outbreaks of Salmonella reported by the CDC occurred in foods as diverse as peanut butter, alfalfa sprouts, and eggs. A deadly outbreak in Germany in 2010 was caused by E. coli contamination of vegetable sprouts (figure). The strain that caused the outbreak was found to be a new serotype not previously involved in other outbreaks, which indicates that E. coli is continuously evolving.

(a) Vegetable sprouts grown at an organic farm were the cause of an (b) E. coli outbreak that killed 32 people and sickened 3,800 in Germany in 2011. The strain responsible, E. coliO104:H4, produces Shiga toxin, a substance that inhibits protein synthesis in the host cell. The toxin (c) destroys red blood cells resulting in bloody diarrhea. Deformed red blood cells clog the capillaries of the kidney, which can lead to kidney failure, as happened to 845 patients in the 2011 outbreak. Kidney failure is usually reversible, but some patients experience kidney problems years later. (credit c: NIDDK, NIH)

Early Biotechnology: Cheese, Bread, Wine, Beer, and Yogurt

According to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity, biotechnology is “any technological application that uses biological systems, living organisms, or derivatives thereof, to make or modify products or processes for specific use."1 The concept of “specific use” involves some sort of commercial application. Genetic engineering, artificial selection, antibiotic production, and cell culture are current topics of study in biotechnology. However, humans have used prokaryotes before the term biotechnology was even coined. In addition, some of the goods and services are as simple as cheese, bread, wine, beer, and yogurt, which employ both bacteria and other microbes, such as yeast, a fungus.

Some of the products derived from the use of prokaryotes in early biotechnology include (a) cheese, (b) wine, (c) beer and bread, and (d) yogurt. (credit bread: modification of work by F. Rodrigo/Wikimedia Commons; credit wine: modification of work by Jon Sullivan; credit beer and bread: modification of work by Kris Miller; credit yogurt: modification of work by Jon Sullivan)

Using Bacteria to Clean up Our Planet: Bioremediation

Microbial bioremediation is the use of prokaryotes (or microbial metabolism) to remove pollutants. Bioremediation has been used to remove agricultural chemicals (pesticides, fertilizers) that leach from soil into groundwater and the subsurface. Certain toxic metals and oxides, such as selenium and arsenic compounds, can also be removed from water by bioremediation. The reduction of SeO4-2 to SeO3-2 and to Se0 (metallic selenium) is a method used to remove selenium ions from water. Mercury is an example of a toxic metal that can be removed from an environment by bioremediation. As an active ingredient of some pesticides, mercury is used in industry and is also a by-product of certain processes, such as battery production. Methyl mercury is usually present in very low concentrations in natural environments, but it is highly toxic because it accumulates in living tissues. Several species of bacteria can carry out the biotransformation of toxic mercury into nontoxic forms. These bacteria, such as Pseudomonas aeruginosa, can convert Hg+2 into Hg0, which is nontoxic to humans.

One of the most useful and interesting examples of the use of prokaryotes for bioremediation purposes is the cleanup of oil spills. The importance of prokaryotes to petroleum bioremediation has been demonstrated in several oil spills in recent years, such as the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska (1989) (Figure ), the Prestige oil spill in Spain (2002), the spill into the Mediterranean from a Lebanon power plant (2006), and more recently, the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico (2010). To clean up these spills, bioremediation is promoted by the addition of inorganic nutrients that help bacteria to grow. Hydrocarbon-degrading bacteria feed on hydrocarbons in the oil droplet, breaking down the hydrocarbons. Some species, such as Alcanivorax borkumensis, produce surfactants that solubilize the oil, whereas other bacteria degrade the oil into carbon dioxide. In the case of oil spills in the ocean, ongoing, natural bioremediation tends to occur, inasmuch as there are oil-consuming bacteria in the ocean prior to the spill. In addition to naturally occurring oil-degrading bacteria, humans select and engineer bacteria that possess the same capability with increased efficacy and spectrum of hydrocarbon compounds that can be processed. Under ideal conditions, it has been reported that up to 80 percent of the nonvolatile components in oil can be degraded within one year of the spill. Other oil fractions containing aromatic and highly branched hydrocarbon chains are more difficult to remove and remain in the environment for longer periods of time.

(a) Cleaning up oil after the Valdez spill in Alaska, workers hosed oil from beaches and then used a floating boom to corral the oil, which was finally skimmed from the water surface. Some species of bacteria are able to solubilize and degrade the oil. (b) One of the most catastrophic consequences of oil spills is the damage to fauna. (credit a: modification of work by NOAA; credit b: modification of work by GOLUBENKOV, NGO: Saving Taman)

Everyday Connection:

The commensal bacteria that inhabit our skin and gastrointestinal tract do a host of good things for us. They protect us from pathogens, help us digest our food, and produce some of our vitamins and other nutrients. These activities have been known for a long time. More recently, scientists have gathered evidence that these bacteria may also help regulate our moods, influence our activity levels, and even help control weight by affecting our food choices and absorption patterns. The Human Microbiome Project has begun the process of cataloging our normal bacteria (and archaea) so we can better understand these functions.

A particularly fascinating example of our normal flora relates to our digestive systems. People who take high numbers of antibiotics tend to lose many of their normal gut bacteria, allowing a naturally antibiotic-resistant species called Clostridium difficile to overgrow and cause severe gastric problems, especially chronic diarrhea (Figure). Obviously, trying to treat this problem with antibiotics only makes it worse. However, it has been successfully treated by giving the patients fecal transplants from healthy donors to reestablish the normal intestinal microbial community. Clinical trials are underway to ensure the safety and effectiveness of this technique.

This scanning electron micrograph shows Clostridium difficile, a Gram-positive, rod-shaped bacterium that causes severe diarrhea. Infection commonly occurs after the normal gut fauna is eradicated by antibiotics. (credit: modification of work by CDC, HHS; scale-bar data from Matt Russell)
Micrograph shows small clusters of white rod-shaped bacteria against a dark background.

Scientists are also discovering that the absence of certain key microbes from our intestinal tract may set us up for a variety of problems. This seems to be particularly true regarding the appropriate functioning of the immune system. There are intriguing findings that suggest that the absence of these microbes is an important contributor to the development of allergies and some autoimmune disorders. Research is currently underway to test whether adding certain microbes to our internal ecosystem may help in the treatment of these problems as well as in treating some forms of autism.


  1., United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity: Article 2: Use of Terms.