11 Reasons to Love Bacteria, Fungi and Spores

From medicines to jet fuel, we have so many reasons to celebrate the microbes we live with every day

Penicillin: a fuzzy little life saver. (Guntars Grebezs/iStock)
smithsonian.com

Modern society seems to have gone germophobic—say the word "bacteria" and most people will immediately conjure images of nasty illnesses and dangerous infections. But bacteria, fungi and other microbes underpin some of the most fundamental cycles of life and death on this planet. What's more, all kinds of beneficial microbes can be used to construct self-repairing buildings, to power batteries, to solve murder investigations and even to fight off deadly diseases.

In short, microbes are amazing, and here are just some of the ones that deserve to be celebrated:

Life Support

Plants and animals require nitrogen to build the proteins and amino acids that are fundamental to biology. While nitrogen makes up almost 80 percent of our atmosphere, nitrogen gas is inert and cannot be used by most living organisms. It needs to be converted into fixed compounds, such as nitrates, nitrites and ammonia. The principal players in this biological process are free-living bacteria in the soil and bacterial species, such as Rhizobium, that live in symbiotic relationships with plants. These bacteria build nitrogen-fixing root nodules on leguminous plants like peas, beans and clover. Once the nitrogen has been fixed, it is available to build plant proteins, which are then eaten by animals and converted into animal proteins. Without these bacteria, life as we know it would not exist on Earth.

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