We humans like to think we're pretty great. We have things like the Mona Lisa, and the Large Hadron Collider, and The Kind of Chocolate Sauce That Turns Solid When You Put It On Ice Cream. Still, it turns out that if aliens were to visit planet Earth and kidnap the dominant species, they'd go for bacteria over us any day. There are more of them, they're more diverse, they've been around a lot longer, and between the lot of them, they've achieved a lot more. Have a look at ten things that bacteria do with their bare flagella that we could never manage to duplicate.
10. Live for 34,000 years.
In Death Valley, researchers found salt crystals that had tiny, fluid-filled pockets in them. In those pockets were 34,000-year-old bacteria. Not a species of bacteria that was 34,000 years old; an actual 34,000-year-old organism that had put itself in suspended animation for tens of thousands of years. And they didn't look a day over thirty.
9. Be their own ecosystem.
In a goldmine in South Africa, there isn't much room for life. There's no sun, and no complex plants or animals providing nutrients to feed on. There is, however, a kind of bacteria. One kind of bacteria. It takes the heat of the mine and the water that fills the bottom and harvests everything it needs from the elements - literally. There is no life in the mine besides Desulforudis audaxviator, the world's most self-sufficient organism.
8. Make gold nanoparticles.
Gold sprinkles the land, but in only a few places does it come in solid enough form that it's worth collecting. And the main reason it does that is bacteria. Certain bacteria dissolve gold into nanoparticles, and those nanoparticles move freely through the soil until they collect in certain areas. Whenever a prospector strikes it rich, he or she should thank the humble bacteria. I'm guessing they don't, though.
7. Glow in the dark.
Bacteria are the source of most bioluminescence in sea life. Some squid carry bacteria in their bodies that allow them to glow, and many bioluminescent fish have pouches of bacteria which manufacture the enzyme luciferase, which glows in the dark. And not just under black light. That's cheating.
6. Be the world's tiniest ninja.
Nanobacteria occupy only 20 nanometers. They're somewhat controversial, since some scientists believe that such a small space can't possibly hold the components necessary for life. And maybe that's true. For these bacteria are not life - they are death! In the lab they tend to occupy dying mammalian cells. In real life, they've been linked to numerous health problems - but the link has never been certain. They are silent. They are untraceable. And they are deadly.
5. Live on Mars.
Oh, I'm not saying they do. I'm saying they could. Discoveries of colonies of live bacteria in liquid pockets in the dry valleys of Antarctica, they could definitely live somewhere below the surface of Mars.
4. Survive in boiling water.
Most of us are only comfortable in that tiny fraction of an inch that our shower knob that allows us to get the right temperature of water. If we so much as nudge the knob, or if someone in the room flushes the toilet, we jump out of the water, screaming. Not so with botulism bacteria. This deadly little number can survive boiling water. It's only when the water is pressurized, so it boils at a higher temperature, that botulism dies off.
3. Modify their own genes.
Bacteria gain new abilities by swiping genes from other bacteria they encounter. If humans were able to do the same, it would be a little like being able to grow spots after petting a leopard. The process is called horizontal gene transfer, and it allows the bacteria to gain resistance to antibiotics.
2. Protect themselves from radioactivity and toxic environments
Some kinds of bacteria that live in radioactive areas have worked out ways of defending against taking in heavy metals. Not only is this of interest to biologists, but engineers are working out ways of using these bacteria to harvest heavy metals. Humans shrink from Uranium. Bacteria pick it up and use it as armor.
1. Digest your food.
Yes, you can't even do that on your own. As thousands of yogurt commercials have no doubt told you, you need bacteria to help you. And while they're down there, they do things like protect against other types of infection, regulate your immune system, and some, Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium, even fight elements that cause cancer. That's right. The goop in your stomach fought cancer today. And what did you do?