Q What are bacteria?
— Israel Edwards, Madison, Wis.
A Brian Pfleger, associate professor in the department of chemical and biological engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison:
Bacteria are amazing single-celled, simple organisms. They’re found everywhere on the planet in all sorts of environments from your gut to the soil to the Arctic and Antarctic.
In every type of environment you can imagine, people have isolated bacteria. They do amazing things with applications in chemistry, human health and even biotechnology.
The field of biotechnology is interested in using living organisms like bacteria to benefit human society. Classically, bacteria have been used in the production of medicines like antibiotics.
Increasingly they’re being used for making chemicals that people need in their everyday lives, like fuel. In the past, the emphasis was on converting petroleum or fossil fuel resources to useful chemicals, but, today, researchers are looking at more sustainable solutions.
With the help of bacteria, scientists can convert biomass, like corn crops and other renewable resources, into fuel or some of those same useful chemicals.
There are lots of different kinds of bacteria, but the one often used in engineering applications is Escherichia coli, known as E. coli for short. E. coli bacteria are often discussed in the context of food scares or other types of health issues, but they’re useful organisms for research.
It’s a well-known organism with wonderful traits for scientific purposes. Researchers already know a lot about E. coli’s properties, and it can grow very quickly on a wide range of cheap materials.
Scientists can manipulate the bacteria genetically to give them new properties. By changing the blueprints in the organism, bacteria can be modified to be more useful in applications like sustainable biofuel generation.