Science: Good bacteria essential

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As a pediatrician, I spend a lot of time looking for bacteria that might be making my patients sick. Some well-known illnesses that are caused by bacteria include strep throat, ear infections, Lyme disease and conjunctivitis (pinkeye). Bacteria are also responsible for acne, cavities and body odor.

Bacteria can hurt you in two ways. Some attack cells directly. Others produce toxins (poisons) that make you sick. Either way, bacteria can rapidly damage or destroy cells.

While it's true that some bacteria can make you sick, most species of bacteria are helpful. Here are some cool facts about bacteria.

• Bacteria are essential to life on Earth. Along with fungi, they decompose, or break down, dead plants and animals to provide nutrients for plant life. Some bacteria turn nitrogen from the atmosphere into nitrates that plants need for growth.

• Bacteria help lots of animals digest food while producing vitamins for the host animal. Baby koalas ingest pap, a mucuslike substance that contains billions of bacteria, from their mother's poop at 6 months of age. The pap allows them to digest eucalyptus leaves.

• One type of bacteria "eats" oil and can be used to help clean up oil spills, including the 2010 spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

• Sewage treatment plants use bacteria to help purify water.

• Bacteria are used to make food. They help turn milk into yogurt and cheese. The most expensive coffee in the world exists because of bacteria. There is a small catlike animal in Indonesia that eats coffee beans. As the beans move through its intestine, bacteria remove some of the chemicals in the beans that make them bitter. When the animal poops, the beans are harvested, cleaned and made into coffee.

The reason you sometimes develop diarrhea after taking antibiotics is that the medicine kills the good bacteria in your intestinal tract as well as the bad ones. Killing the good bacteria hampers the way your large intestine works.

Eating good bacteria can help your digestion and treat diarrhea. Good bacteria are called probiotics. You can find them in certain yogurts and as food supplements.

science - bookclub

First Published April 9, 2012 12:00 AM


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