Tiny Friends

Bacteria That Restore Old Frescoes & Change Climate By Group Decisions

Germaphobes not withstanding, without bacteria we wouldn’t last long on this unwashed planet. And there’s much more than meets the (microscope-clad) eye about these microorganisms.
They’re already being used in oil spills and for turning sewage into electricity. Now, meet a “new” generation of bacteria, capable of making decisions in group or restoring art masterpieces.
So, layoff those bacteria-killing products, in itself a multi-billion dollar industry already, and let some do the dirty work for you.
And it’s a lot of work for these tiny and incredibly diverse beings, whose biomass surpasses that of all plants and animals on earth combined.
That also includes the ones working inside and outside your body right now, which is a lot more than you could say about your uncle Bob.
In any event, you may need to keep in mind that the ones inside you should remain in there, for everybody’s health.
In fact, one of the mankind’s biggest foe, responsible for millions of deaths every year and usually associated with extreme poverty and lack of sanitation, lives in your own gut: E.coli.
You’ve certainly heard about it, even that in these PC times, we usually prefer to use an euphemism for its sudden outbreak: food poisoning.

Inside the body, though, Escherichia coli sets residence in the intestines and does a great job warding off other potentialy harmful bugs.
So, even a lethal little thing-y like that can have its benefits. And so do many other forms of bacteria. Blue-cheese cultures, probiotics, you’ve heard about these too.
UNSUNG LABORERS
Research is being done on a form that produces insulin, that one day may substitute those prickly shots diabetics need to have everyday, while some projects develop bacteria specifically for pest control.
More, wastewater bacteria, for example, has been tested to generate electricity. As they feed on solid human waste, they convert organic matter to carbon dioxide, releasing electrons, the basic element of electrical current.
And then there’re the greatest unsung heroes of oil spill cleanups everywhere, thousands of microbial species that consume the hydrocarbons that make up oil in the water, on land, underground and even, possibly, in the air.
Some are still hard at work at the surrounding Gulf of Mexico waters of last year’s massive oil spill. The process is too slow to save marine species coated with the slick but, in the long run, there’s really nothing else that works better at consuming all that oil.
So these are the well known veterans of the bacteria’s pecking order, the hard laborers, and mostly benign matter processors that may keep us healthy or on the verge of expiration.
CONSENSUAL DECISIONS
Now, on to the decision making types, the ones whose actions may influence global climate, and the artsy-fartsy crowd. As one could expect, these are slightly moodier than your average oil-eating kind, and what they do and don’t rubs people in different ways.
In a recent study reported by Science Daily, researchers found out how ocean microorganisms can affect the weather. As the bacteria coalesce into carbon-rich detritus sinking through the oceans, they send out chemical signals.
If there’re enough bacteria receiving those signals, they may start secreting enzymes that break up the carbon-containing molecules: instead of sinking to the depths, carbon dioxide is released back into the atmosphere.
Carbon dioxide as a component of greenhouse gases is a well-known determining factor in global climate change. What researchers hadn’t noticed before, though, is that the carbon breakdown process is a result of a collective decision made by the bacteria.

HUNGRY BACTERIA
Finally, let’s talk about art restoration. To restore a group of 17th-century frescoes in the Church of Santos Juanes, the Institute of Heritage Restoration in Valencia enlisted a group of unusual members for its team of specialists: bacteria.
The masterpieces had been damaged by fire (the Spanish Civil War), glue (botched restoration attempts in the 1960s), and salt blooms (a side effect of pigeon nests), but that was no match for the Pseudomonas stutzeri, which are trained to eat salt and glue.
The team is brushing the frescoes, one small area at a time, with a culture of the microorganisms and gel, under heated lights for humidity. After only 90 minutes of precious bacteria nibbling, voilá, they’re done.
The surface is then rinsed with water and dried, killing the bacteria, and the team is ready to move on. The technique is planned to be used in other masterpieces requiring restoration.
Now, when you’re uncle Bob offers you to ‘fix’ that old painting in your family possession for ages, you have a way of telling him that that won’t be necessary, without hurting his feelings.

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