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With biotechnology, we can harness the power of the smallest living things on the Earth to fight disease or even to manufacture products. Microbes are organisms made of a single cell, and are by far more abundant than any other form of life. To learn more about them we spoke with Dr. Patricia Dos Santos, Assistant Professor of Chemistry at Wake Forest University.
All forms of life on earth have been derived from a single ancestor, one form of life, that eventually has evolved to three different branches of this huge tree. One branch would be bacteria, one branch would be archea, another branch would be for eukaryotic cells.
Eukaryotic cells make up animals, plants, mushrooms, and anything alive that you can see, as well as much of what is too small to see. You and I are eukaryotes because our cells are eukaryotic. Archea are often found in extreme environments and are considered some of the most ancient of all living things. Bacteria are all around us, and serve a prominent role in our lives.
They have different shapes. They can have tentacles, or they can have a long tail, like a flagella. Or, like little tentacles. They can come in shapes or rods or little circles, like a clock-eye. Or they can form aggregates of different shapes, and they can also form different structures, like in a bio-film. That is a critical structure for infection. You have bacteria feeding on top of another, and then the bacteria that is kind of on the bottom, they are resistant to drugs like antibiotics and the ones on the top protect the lower ones on that wall from being killed.
Bacteria can work together toward a common goal. Like animals in the wild, different bacteria fill niches and sometimes communicate with one-another within their own natural habitats. These habitats are wildly diverse, and often closer than you might imagine.
Certainly there is a symbiotic relationship in natural habitats like your mouth. There are thousands of different bacteria. And it's thought that some of the bacteria produce some metabolizers benefited from other bacteria. But also there’s a lot of fighting going on, so some bacteria can produce some metabolizers that are toxic, or may give signals to other bacteria to go away. So there’s some signaling that happens.
Throughout the evolution of life on Earth, many symbiotic relationships have emerged in which unrelated organisms rely on each other for survival. The relationship between humans and microbes is one of those relationships.
Microbes are capable of synthesizing vitamins, and vitamins are things that we can’t really make. That’s why there are vitamins we have to take in our diet. The same thing for some amino acids, they are essential to us and we have to take in our diet. We tend to think that microbes are just nasty organisms that can cause disease, but our bodies actually have more microbes than our own cells. We are more of something else than ourselves, if you think about it. So, most microbes that would help digest the food we eat or they would protect our body against pathogenic bacteria that are also microbes, so I think it is very important for us to know how to differentiate bad bacteria and good bacteria.
Through biotechnology we can harness the processes of microbes. Through science, we can use them in creative ways as tools to solve problems.
Some of the research in my lab really tries to understand chemical reactions that microbes can do, but what chemical reactions that bad microbes do that good bacteria cannot do. Find ways to attack the bacteria at a point that is specific to only the bacteria we want to target, and is not going to do any harm to us, and is not going to do any harm to the good bacteria. That can provide a very powerful way to fight against pathogenic bacteria that can cause very bad disease. We can use microbes not in our bodies, but in biotechnology as factories for molecules that we like. We have a really good understanding of how we can use bacteria to produce enzymes, to produce small molecules or vitamins that we can really exploit to synthesize products for us.