Microbes of Many Talents
Microbes make medicine. Soil microorganisms wage chemical warfare. Their bodies make compounds that kill other microbes—antibiotics! Soil bacteria make many of the familiar antibiotic medicines we take—penicillin, erythromycin, streptomycin, tetracycline, vanamycin.
Microbes make biofuel. Some lollipop-shaped soil bacteria make ethanol, a substitute for gasoline in flex-fuel cars and trucks.
Microbes make trouble. Bacillus anthracis—an uncommon but widespread bacterium—spends part of its life cycle in soils, where it survives for decades without growing. But when this bacterium gets into the nutrient-rich bodies of animals, it causes anthrax, a disease characterized by lesions and sometimes death.