Here’s the Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary definition of “bacterium”: “Any of a class (Schizomycetes) of microscopic plants having round, rodlike, spiral or filamentous single-celled or noncellular bodies often aggregated into colonies or motile by means of flagella, living in soil, water, organic matter, or the bodies of plants and animals, and being autotrophic, saprophytic, or parasitic in nutrition and important to man because of their chemical effects and as pathogens. Plural, bacteria.”

This is one of those definitions. You know, one of those cases that, should you have no former knowledge of the subject, will contain in terse, tight language additional words you will in turn need to define. Then, in those definitions, there will inevitably be more terms requiring definition. For you. Pretty soon, if you’re anything like me, befuddlement ensues. Followed, often, by exasperation, then resignation.

That’s about where I am with “bacteria.” They’re small, of many kinds. Some are good and indispensable for humans. Some are bad for us. The bad ones are often in the news.

Good reason: Certain bacteria and complex communities of them called biofilms cause infections that are now the fourth leading cause of death in the United States. Behind heart disease, cancer and stroke. Naturally, there’s a lot of interest in biofilms.

Many bacteria prefer to be on surfaces and in communities (biofilms). Living communities in which individual bacteria communicate with each other through complex chemical languages, regulate themselves and can act together. Moreover, some bacteria can “talk to” and “understand” certain different strains of bacteria also living in the community.

This new understanding will, it is hoped and expected, lead to new ways to stop, limit or eliminate bacteria harmful to us, and lead to new, sorely needed antibiotics, since present-day antibiotics are increasingly ineffective against bacteria and bacteria inside biofilms.

“Superbugs” have mutated into bacterial strains that resist conventional antibacterial drugs. Researchers are beginning to learn how to block the communication within the bacterial communities, and this will curtail their growth and ill effects.

Sounds simple and direct, but not so. Biofilms are intricate structures and will not be simple to unravel. Bacteria are the oldest organisms on Earth. They have had a long time to develop survival strategies. It has to be an exciting time to be a bacteriologist these days working on this issue.

Should any advances be made public that I can comprehend, I’ll try to make note of them.

Like this one that I found of interest: A specific bacterium in the strain of bifidobacterium longum lives on a component of human milk that infants cannot digest. Up to 21 percent of human milk is composed of complex sugars not used as nutrition for the child. It turns out these sugars are used by bifido that in turn coat the lining of infants’ intestines to protect them from harmful bacteria.

An article in The New York Times gently suggests that a fluid involved in “200 million years of mammalian evolution [might] hold a wealth of information on how best to feed and defend the human body.”

Ya think?

Field Notes: Nature makes preparations for fall. A few late or out-of-season flowers. Maturing of grasses, forbs and leaves. Time for the autumnal mating of elk, moose, deer. Time for some creatures to see winter quarters, time for some to hibernate.

One might see unexpected birds out the window or from a car. Flocks of bluebirds or a flycatcher or warbler. In the forest, look and listen for woodpeckers, whose population seems increased — a result, perhaps, of increased insect prey items. Let Nature Mapping (and me) know of your observations.

Breaking news: On Sunday, Susan Patla spotted a juvenile Sabine’s gull on the Snake River, about 2.5 miles south of the Hwy. 22 bridge. This gull is unusual in the mountainous parts of Wyoming. I urge everybody to keep a sharp eye.

© Bert Raynes 2010

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Bert Raynes writes weekly on whatever suits his fancy with a dash of news on nature and its many ways.

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