We don’t like microbes. We associate them with disease and death and spend a lot of time and money trying to eradicate them from our lives (and in doing so create super-strains that are many times more deadly).
But many types of microbe can be helpful (your body is more bacteria than human and couldn’t survive without them) and some may actually hold the key to fighting global warming, cleaning up pollution and even help cure cancer.
The snappily-named Geobacter sulfurreducens, for example, has an exciting double party trick.
Under certain conditions, this handy little bug can grow special hairs, called pili, that can zap uranium from polluted water supplies and, if attached to an electrode, can be used to generate electricity. In fact Nasa plan to employ the energy generating talents of this particular bug to help power their next generation of miniature robotic rovers.
Another strain of pollution-busting bacteria, called Alcanivorax, can break down the hydrocarbons in crude oil and is hard at work right now at the Deepwater Horizon spill, helping to mop up the mess.
Here are three ‘helpful’ microbes with the potential to change our lives for the better.