8 Surprising Things You Didn't Know About Bacteria

Bacteria are the most numerous life forms on the planet. Bacteria come in various shapes and sizes and thrive in some of the most inhospitable environments. They live in your body, on your skin, and on objects you use everyday. Below are 8 surprising things you may not know about bacteria.

of 08

Staph Bacteria Crave Human Blood

This is a scanning electron micrograph of Staphylococcus bacteria (yellow) and a dead human neutrophil (white blood cell). National Institutes of Health/Stocktrek Images/Getty Image

Staphylococcus aureus is a common type of bacteria that infects about 30 percent of all people. In some people, it is a part of the normal group of bacteria that inhabit the body and may be found in areas such as the skin and the nasal cavities. While some staph strains are harmless, others like MRSA pose serious health problems including skin infections, heart disease, meningitis and foodborne illness.

Vanderbilt University researchers have discovered that staph bacteria prefer human blood over that of animal blood. These bacteria favor the iron which is contained within the oxygen-carrying protein hemoglobin found within red blood cells. Staphylococcus aureus bacteria break open blood cells to obtain the iron within the cells. It is believed that genetic variations in hemoglobin may make some human hemoglobin more desirable to staph bacteria than others.


  • Vanderbilt University Medical Center. "Staph bacteria: Blood-sucking superbug prefers taste of humans." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 16 December 2010. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/12/101215121908.htm.
of 08

Rain-Making Bacteria

Pseudomonas Bacteria
Pseudomonas Bacteria. SCIEPRO/Science Photo Library/Getty Images

Researchers have discovered that bacteria in the atmosphere may play a part in the production of rain and other forms of precipitation. This process begins as bacteria on plants are swept into the atmosphere by wind. As they rise higher, ice forms around them and they begin to grow larger. Once the frozen bacteria reach a certain threshold, the ice begins to melt and returns to the ground as rain.

Bacteria of the species Psuedomonas syringae have even been found in the center of large hailstones. These bacteria produce a special protein in their cell membranes that allows them to bind water in a unique fashion that helps to promote ice crystal formation.


  • Louisiana State University. "Evidence Of 'Rain-making' Bacteria Discovered In Atmosphere And Snow." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 29 February 2008. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/02/080228174801.htm.
  • American Society for Microbiology. "Do bacteria play role in weather events? High concentration of bacteria in center of hailstones, researchers report." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 25 May 2011. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/05/110524111345.htm.
of 08

Acne Fighting Bacteria

Propionibacterium acnes
Propionibacterium acnes bacteria are found deep in the hair follicles and pores of the skin, where they usually causes no problems. However, if there is an over-production of sebaceous oil, they grow, producing enzymes that damage the skin and cause acne. Credit: SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY/Getty Images

Researchers have discovered that some strains of acne bacteria may actually help to prevent acne. The bacterium that causes acne, Propionibacterium acnes, dwells in the pores of our skin. When these bacteria induce an immune response, the area swells and produces acne bumps. Some strains of the acne bacteria however, have been found to be less likely to cause acne. These strains may be the reason why people with healthy skin rarely get acne.

While examining the genes of P. acnes strains gathered from people with acne and people with healthy skin, the researchers identified a strain that was common in those with clear skin and rare in the presence of acne. Future studies will include the attempt to develop a drug that only kills the acne producing strains of P. acnes.


  • University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), Health Sciences. "Why some people get zits and others don't." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 28 February 2013. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/02/130228080135.htm.
of 08

Gum Bacteria Linked to Heart Disease

Bacteria That Cause Gingivitis
This is a colored scanning electron micrograph (SEM) of a large number of bacteria (green) in the gingiva (gums) of a human mouth. The most common form of gingivitis, inflammation of the gum tissue, is in response to bacterial overgrowth that causes plaques (biofilms) to form on the teeth. STEVE GSCHMEISSNER/Science Photo Library/Getty Images

Who would have thought that brushing your teeth could actually help prevent heart disease? Studies have shown that there is a link between gum disease and heart disease. Now researchers have found a specific link between the two that centers around proteins. It seems that both bacteria and humans produce particular types of proteins called heat shock or stress proteins. These proteins are produced when cells experience various types of stressful conditions. When a person has a gum infection, the immune system cells go to work by attacking the bacteria. The bacteria produce stress proteins when under attack, and white blood cells attack the stress proteins as well.

The problem lies in the fact that the white blood cells can not distinguish between stress proteins produced by bacteria, and those produced by the body. As a result, the immune system cells also attack the stress proteins that are produced by the body. It is this assault that causes a build-up of white blood cells in the arteries which leads to atherosclerosis. Atherosclerosis is a major contributor to heart disease and poor cardiovascular health.


  • Society for General Microbiology. "Brush Your Teeth To Reduce The Risk Of Heart Disease." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 11 September 2008. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/09/080908203017.htm.
of 08

Soil Bacteria Help You Learn

Boy Holding Plant
Some soil bacteria stimulate brain neuron growth and increase learning capacity. JW LTD/Taxi/Getty Images

Who knew that all of the time spent in the garden or doing yard work could actually help you learn. According to researchers, the soil bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae can increase learning in mammals. Researcher Dorothy Matthews states that these bacteria are "likely ingested or breathed in" when we spend time outdoors. Mycobacterium vaccae is thought to increase learning by stimulating brain neuron growth resulting in increased levels of serotonin and decreased anxiety.

The study was conducted using mice which were fed live M. vaccae bacteria. The results showed that bacteria fed mice were able to navigate a maze much faster and with less anxiety than mice who were not fed the bacteria. The study suggests that M. vaccae does play a role in the improved learning of new tasks and decreased levels of anxiety.


  • American Society for Microbiology. "Can bacteria make you smarter?." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 25 May 2010. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/05/100524143416.htm.
of 08

Bacteria Power Machines

Bacillus Subtilis
Bacillus Subtilis is a Gram-positive, catalase-positive bacterium commonly found in soil, with a tough, protective endospore, allowing the organism to tolerate extreme environmental conditions. Sciencefoto.De - Dr. Andre Kemp/Oxford Scientific/Getty Images

Researchers from Argonne National Laboratory have discovered that Bacillus subtilis bacteria have the ability to turn very small gears. These bacteria are aerobic, meaning that they need oxygen for growth and development. When placed in a solution with the microgears, the bacteria swim into the spokes of the gears and cause them to turn in a specific direction. It takes a few hundred bacteria working in unison to turn the gears.

It was also discovered that the bacteria can turn gears that are connected at the spokes, similar to the gears of a clock. The researchers were able to control the speed at which the bacteria turned the gears by adjusting the amount of oxygen in the solution. Decreasing the amount of oxygen caused the bacteria to slow down. Removing the oxygen caused them to stop moving completely.


  • DOE/Argonne National Laboratory. "Bacteria used to power simple machines: Organisms turn microgears in suspended solution by swimming." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 17 December 2009. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/12/091216121500.htm.
of 08

Data Can Be Stored in Bacteria

Bacteria can store more data than a computer hard drive. Henrik Jonsson/E+/Getty Images

Can you imagine being able to store data and sensitive information in bacteria? These microscopic organisms are most commonly known for causing disease, but scientists have managed to genetically engineer bacteria that can store encrypted data. The data is stored in bacterial DNA. Information such as text, images, music, and even video can be compressed and distributed between different bacterial cells.

By mapping the bacterial DNA, scientists can easily locate and retrieve the information. One gram of bacteria is capable of storing the same amount of data as can be stored in 450 hard disks with 2,000 gigabytes of storage space each.

Why Store Data in Bacteria?

Bacteria are good candidates for biostorage because they replicate quickly, they have the capacity to store huge volumes of information, and they are resilient. Bacteria reproduce at an astounding rate and most reproduce by binary fission. Under optimal conditions, a single bacterial cell can produce as many as one hundred million bacteria in only one hour. Considering this, data stored in bacteria could be copied millions of times ensuring the preservation of information. Because bacteria are so small, they have the potential to store large quantities of information without taking up much space. It has been estimated that 1 gram of bacteria contains around 10 million cells. Bacteria are also resilient organisms. They can survive and adapt to changing environmental conditions. Bacteria can survive extreme conditions, whereas hard drives and other computer storage devices can not.


  • European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL). "Researchers make DNA data storage a reality: Every film and TV program ever created -- in a teacup." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 23 January 2013. (http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/01/130123133432.htm)
  • CUHK Biochemistry Students Win Gold at MIT Competition for Proving Bacteria DNA as Device for Information Storage. Chinese University of Hong Kong. Updated 11/24/14 (http://www.cuhk.edu.hk/cpr/pressrelease/101124e.htm)
of 08

Bacteria Can Identify You

Bacteria on Hand Print
Bacterial colonies are growing in the print of a human hand on agar gel. A hand was pressed onto the agar and the plate incubated. Under normal circumstances the skin is populated by its own colonies of beneficial bacteria. They help to defend the skin against harmful bacteria. SCIENCE PICTURES LTD/Science Photo Library/Getty Images

Researchers from the University of Colorado at Boulder have shown that bacteria found on the skin can be used to identify individuals. The bacteria that reside on a your hands are unique to you. Even identical twins have unique skin bacteria. When we touch something, we leave behind our skin bacteria on the item. Through bacterial DNA analysis, specific bacteria on surfaces can be matched to the hands of the person from which they came. Because bacteria are unique and remain unchanged for several weeks, they can be used as a type of fingerprint.


  • University of Colorado at Boulder. "New hand bacteria study holds promise for forensics identification." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 16 March 2010. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/03/100315161718.htm.
mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Bailey, Regina. "8 Surprising Things You Didn't Know About Bacteria." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, thoughtco.com/surprising-things-you-didnt-know-about-bacteria-373277. Bailey, Regina. (2020, August 26). 8 Surprising Things You Didn't Know About Bacteria. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/surprising-things-you-didnt-know-about-bacteria-373277 Bailey, Regina. "8 Surprising Things You Didn't Know About Bacteria." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/surprising-things-you-didnt-know-about-bacteria-373277 (accessed January 25, 2021).