Our series “Ask a Scientist” was constructed from the belief that we should distribute knowledge that helps you become your own catalyst in health-related questions and subsequent personalized health decisions. The series will dive into complex and often convoluted topics that have become part of the everyday health discussion, the topics that are applicable to all of us (to name a few): how the environment affects skin aging, your gut health, and maintaining mental sharpness. Instead of giving you all of the information about one topic, we’re highlighting key areas that are actionable and relevant to making informed decisions about your health and to kick us off, we’re beginning with one of the most misunderstood yet often very helpful organisms in the human body, Bacteria.
And for good reason, Bacteria is everywhere and holds great potential. We have all seen articles detailing the benefits of good bacteria in the gut such as probiotics, that support digestion, but are often confused when hearing about, deadly bacterial infections that affect millions of people worldwide. Scientists, researchers and organizations alike are continuously working hard to dispel confusion. To help us understand the basics, we decided to look in our backyard here in Seattle. We’re fortunate enough to be surrounded by some of the brightest, and most innovative minds in science. To help us understand the bacteria basics, we interviewed a scientist, Dr. Ingrid Pultz, well known in the field of bacteria research and application of bacteria for medical treatments working as the Co-Founder and Chief Scientific Officer for PvP Biologics – developing highly effective therapeutic products to reduce the burden of living with celiac disease.
Ingrid, thank you again for sitting down with us and educating our audience on all things bacteria!
SILENE BIOTECH: So let’s get to the basics, what are bacteria?
INGRID: Bacteria are single-celled organisms. Unicellular organisms fall into general categories called prokaryotic and eukaryotic organisms. Eukaryotes have a nucleus while prokaryotic organisms do not. Eukaryotic organisms store their DNA in their nucleus, while prokaryotic organisms (bacteria) stores their DNA in a localized but not contained region of the cell called the nucleoid.
Specifically, bacteria reproduce by division, and because of this, they never die of old age. They normally die because of being in the wrong environment (e.g. nutrient-limited or poisonous). Luckily for bacteria, they use a cell wall that can protect them within certain stressful environments. Bacteria are very adaptable, ‘changing’ themselves in new environments. They can alter the molecules inside and within their cell walls. They can change themselves to enhance survival; through exquisitely tuned regulation of their gene expression. They can also adapt their DNA quickly to adjust to new environments and take up new DNA from the environment. This is how antibiotic resistance becomes a big problem.
Silene Biotech note: Bacteria never die of old age? That is really interesting. What we love about bacteria is that it is so adaptable. The best known bacterial adaptation to stress is the formation of endospores (endospores are bacterial survival structures that are highly resistant to many different types of chemical and environmental stresses and therefore enable the survival of bacteria in environments that would be lethal for these cells in their normal vegetative form). Though bacteria that grow these spores (and live way longer) are harmful, it’s helpful to understand these adaptable features of bacteria.
SILENE BIOTECH: Can you explain the benefits and downfalls of bacteria? Concerning disease and prevention?
INGRID: There are a lot of different species of bacteria. Some have a symbiotic relationship and some have a parasitic relationship. You might have heard of some of the parasitic bacteria – pneumonia, meningitis and strep (to name a few). Antibiotics have the ability to kill these harmful bacteria but sometimes wipe out the healthy microflora (bacterial cells). As mentioned bacteria can develop resistance to antibiotics, making it harder to treat some of these illnesses. Probiotics (symbiotic relationship), are introduced into the body for its beneficial qualities, which may affect metabolism and immune system function.
SILENE BIOTECH: Explain the differences between fungus and bacteria.
INGRID: Fungus is eukaryotic, has a nucleus, and can be single-celled (not all are). Yeasts are single-celled fungi (mushrooms are multi-cellular). A major difference between fungi and bacteria is how they read DNA and make cellular molecules. Bacteria are much smaller than fungi, do not have nuclei or other organelles and cannot reproduce sexually. Both bacteria and fungi can cause human infections.
Silene Biotech note: As mentioned before bacteria are able to have symbiotic relationships with humans and so can fungai. An antibiotic known as penicillin (also a fungus) was derived from mold. Discovered in 1928 penicillin has been a helpful medication, effective against many bacterial infections.
SILENE BIOTECH: Explain the difference of bacteria and viruses. How do they differ when talking about disease?
INGRID: Bacteria are cells, while viruses are not. It is argued if viruses are even ‘alive’ since they need a host cell to replicate. Viruses are acellular (no cell structure) have much less DNA and fewer genes than bacteria.
Bacteria produce energy from their food as opposed to viruses that can only use energy produced by cells they have infected. Bacteria can live inside or outside of other cells, while a virus always infects cells, programming them to make more of the virus. Concerning diseases (and the severity) of bacteria vs. viruses, it all depends. Antibiotics work against bacteria, but not viruses. In order to kill a virus, you may need to kill the ‘host’ cell, which can be more difficult to treat.
Silene Biotech note: Bacteria are dynamic, adaptable and at times beneficial to people. There is evidence to suggest that these little organisms have the ability to boost our immune system and keep our gut healthy. And, adversely, bacteria can spread disease.
Science is continuing to discover more about bacteria every day; knowing the basics is key to becoming your own, educated, healthcare advocate. Join us for the next ‘Ask A Scientist’ series about your skin!
We created a handy guide on stem cells; the 'beginner cells' helping you heal and keeping you healthy.