Ok, it's a rather dramatic tabloid-style headline, but as Mark has already pointed out we have a great deal to be thankful to bacteria for. If to 'save the world' means allow it to be habitable for human life, then we already owe bacteria many times over. However, rather than the natural development of ecosystems, which has been going on for millennia (no matter what those Young Earthers are saying) what I'm referring to here is much more recent: the intentional use of live microbes as an army of ingenious chemists to help solve current human problems in a sustainable way. This is one of those interesting ideas that occupies my mind now and then, on the drive home from work, or even while at work when I'm supposed to be doing something else...
While there may be plenty of good examples of this type of biotechnology, here I'll just write briefly about a couple of areas that provoked my interest.
A couple of years ago I remember reading about the isolation of bacteria capable of degrading plastic bags dumped in landfill. Continuing the tabloid theme, this story made great news fare, especially in the '...and finally' columns. That is because remarkably this wasn't a discovery made by established biotech or by academic research labs, but by a 16-year old Canadian doing a project for a Science Fair. Daniel Burd reasoned that something breaks down polythene eventually, even though it takes a very long time, and that the agent is very likely a bacterial organism. With a brilliantly simple experiment of culturing landfill soil samples on a diet of polythene he was able to isolate and identify strains of that were responsible. His full report is available here.
Sadly, in the two years since this story broke, I can't find much describing the development of this particular discovery or what Daniel Burd has done since. I hoped to find him a high-flying CEO already, because some people are going to make a lot of money out of the 'green economy' in the next few decades. Perhaps Kevin O' Connor, a University College Dublin researcher, who recently formed a spin-off company called Bioplastech to commercialise his methods for breaking down plastic waste by bacteria, and converting the fatty acids they produce back into a form of biodegradeable plastic that he calls 'bioplastic'.
If you take the viewpoint that anything that chemists can do, bugs can do better, then suddenly you start seeing opportunities all over the place. How about electricity? The development of efficient, portable, rechargeable batteries driven by the huge demand for laptops and mobile phones is certainly an improvement over disposable batteries, although rechargeable batteries still have to be thrown away eventually, and of course rechargeable is not the same as renewable. Once you plug into the wall chances are there's something burning at the end of your energy chain. No doubt, this is not going to change overnight, but here's an interesting idea: the microbial fuel cell. Geobacter and Rhodoferaxown bio-battery that runs on glucose, although they've taken the admittedly much more marketable approach of not filling their batteries with live bacteria and directly use an enzyme solution. I'd confidently bet that the enzymes are microbial though. species have the ability to transfer electrons onto iron oxide in soil. Derek Lovley and colleagues showed that the bacteria are just as happy transferring charge onto an electrode, as long as they are supplied with a food source. I'm sure we'll hear more about this kind of technology in the future as it moves out of the academic lab and into the 'real world'. In fact, Sony has already unveiled its