Not all bacteria is of the flesh-eating, "kill it before it kills you" variety. Some of it is actually good for you. Maybe you've seen the commercials where it helps Jamie Lee Curtis poop, for instance.
But even more beneficial than that, there are some strains of bacteria that not only can perform massive, superhero-level feats, but are probably going to be what stands between us and an apocalyptic future. Feats like ...
#6. Controlling the Weather
If you've ever been unlucky enough to get caught in a hailstorm then you probably know that it's goddamn painful. And while at the time you may have been rhetorically asking the heavens why they were so insistent firing tiny balls of ice at your face, now you have an actual answer: Nearly 85 percent of all hailstones have bacteria at the center.
"I have come here to chew bubblegum and fuck up new cars. And I'm all out of bubblegum."
The bacteria is called Pseudomonas syringae and when it's kicked up into the air, it collects condensation fury, forming water droplets (or in the case of hail, death pellets). Generally the moisture in clouds needs something to cling around in order to create precipitation, and the syringae provide the perfect nucleus.
Howard F. Schwartz
Pseudomonas syringae, seen here biding its time.
So how does this information help us? Well it could allow us to weaponize water, destroying the windshields of our most hated enemies. Or we could use it to stop droughts.
We know that this particular bacteria causes water to freeze about 7 degrees Fahrenheit higher than usual, which means it can create snow and ice in slightly warmer temperatures. For that reason, mountain resorts have been using Pseudomonas syringae bacteria to make fake snow since the late '80s. But for anyone who's not jetsetting to Aspen this winter, there are more practical applications as well. Scientists say it's possible that planting crops already infected with these bacteria may help overcome droughts by inducing rain.
Anne Sherwood, New York Times
The scientists assured reporters that they had "no plans for supervillainy" and then
cackled like mad men for 12 solid minutes.
The bacteria is whipped up into the air the same way the pollen of plants would be, except once it climbs high in the atmosphere, the Pseudomonas syringae encourages rain in the area. Even if you're not on board with the idea of genetically engineering plants to be infected with bacteria, researchers think that just planting crops that encourage the bacteria would have a similar effect. And likewise, planting crops that the bacteria doesn't like might encourage droughts. So there might come a day when solving the world's water problems is just a matter of ordering up some manipulative microbes.
And practical jokes are about to take a big step up.
#5. Colonizing Other Planets
An unspoken rule among party-goers is that anyone left at the end of the night helps to clean up a little, so naturally everybody tries to leave early to avoid dealing with the mess. Well what if we could apply that same lack of accountability to Earth? If we never solve the energy crisis and don't get a handle on greenhouses gases, it may be possible in the future to just leave for another planet. Surely we won't screw that one up, right?
Second planet's a charm!
Apparently, a bacteria called Deinococcus radiodurans is going to help us along the way.
Deinococcus radiodurans, which is nicknamed "Conan the Bacterium" is famous for its ability to not die. It shrugs off an astronomical amount of radioactivity, up to 1.5 million Rads, which is equivalent to 1.5 million Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, or 3,000 times more radiation than it takes to kill a human. It's also about 750,000 times more than the maximum daily measured radiation on Mars. See where we're going with this?
How many of these do we have to eat to gain their powers?
You may know that "terraforming" is the process of making another planet, like Mars, more Earth-like before we even get there. Obviously that's difficult if not impossible if the work involves millions of humans in bulky suits and hundreds of ships taking them back and forth. But microbes like Deinococcus radiodurans open up the possibility of sending a bunch of them spilling out onto the Martian surface and letting them do the work for us. For instance, even if Mars had our atmosphere, we couldn't grow plants there because the soil is toxic. But we have decoded the genome of Deinococcus radiodurans, and therefore could one day engineer a version that would change the composition of the Martian soil, making it plant-friendly.
Apparently Mars needs bacteria, not women.
But there are broader applications; just examining the way the microbe resists damage from radiation tells us a lot about how to engineer other things to do the same (radiation is normally harmful because it damages DNA, and Deinococcus radiodurans has a mechanism for rapidly repairing that damage). We could theoretically do everything from engineering goods to survive the long trip through space to genetically altering the astronauts themselves to be impervious supermen. HOW COULD THAT POSSIBLY GO WRONG?
"This place is awful. Can't we just go take over Earth?"
#4. Eating Battleships
The biggest problem with ships is that when they're old and unusable, there's nowhere to retire them other than the bottom of the ocean. The U.N. estimates that over 3 million ships are located on the ocean floor, with fewer than a thousand that anyone has any plans to clean up. And that's not even covering all the defunct oil rigs down there. As cool as it might be to go exploring sunken battleships on the bottom of the sea in search of treasures and corpses, what we really need is a way to clean up the mess.
Drain cleaner and a Super Soaker?
Enter the Halomonas titanicai, a bacteria that loves eating metal and could do all the cleaning up for us.
Before Titanic was a convenient way to see Kate Winslet naked, it was actually a ship. And had anyone known how many movies she would get naked in after Titanic, we probably could have avoided the whole thing. Anyway, the real ship sank in 1912, where it sat undisturbed for over 70 years. Well, "undisturbed" isn't entirely accurate. During that time, a bacteria sprouted colonies all over the vessel and they are eating the Titanic.
James Cameron's Oscar is somewhere in there.
These bacteria adhere to metal, then create rust knobs which appear to be slowly devouring the ship. It's good news for anyone who is mildly interested in ocean health, but sadly, bad news for anyone who was substituting an old cruise ship for an actual relationship.
"Just knowing they're together now is enough for me."
Because of the great work the bacteria is doing on the Titanic, researchers don't see any reason we can't use the same cultures to clean up other oil rigs and ships. Or, conversely, knowing exactly how the bacteria eats away at metal can inform how we build boats in the future so that they are stronger. By finding a way to prevent this bacteria from colonizing, we can ensure that oil rigs stay structurally sound for a lot longer. Then again, if one of them collapses and it's resistant to the bacteria, then we're right back where we started with steel trash on the floor of the ocean.
At least this will make a pretty reef.