God’s Design in Bacteria

by Sarah Richart

Unfortunately, bacteria have gained a negative reputation since Louis Pasteur proposed the Germ Theory of Disease. Most now think of bacteria as disease-causing superbugs that must be avoided at all costs. But that is true in only a small number of cases. Sometimes, normal beneficial bacteria, like the E. coli we have in our intestines that make vitamins, can change when they encounter DNA from other bacteria. For example, the E. coli O157:H7 strain of bacteria that makes the evening news from time to time acquired a toxin gene from another bacterium, making it a potential threat. When normal, beneficial bacteria find themselves in the wrong context, they can make us sick. Regular, nonharmful E. coli, if introduced to the urogenital system, can cause bladder infections, even though it does not cause infections in the intestines.

Good bacteria, on the other hand, rarely get much press, but they should. Photosynthetic bacteria (cyanobacteria), among the oldest fossils recorded, may represent the very first of God’s creations. If they were anything like today’s cyanobacteria, they may have helped to create oxygen in the atmosphere that would allow for more complex multicellular animal life to exist. Interestingly, we are still dependent on cyanobacteria and algae, not just green plants, to produce the oxygen we breathe. Bacteria are the only creatures on Earth that can convert nitrogen gas from the atmosphere to other nitrogen compounds, making them available to plants for their growth.

Through the years, scientists have come to understand this delicate balance and intricate relationship between bacteria and their hosts. From healthy digestive functioning and healthy weight maintenance to the prevention of asthma and type 2 diabetes to boosted immune systems, God made humans dependent on these simple creatures. If we consider them all potential threats, we ignore our true relationship with them. In contrast, recognizing this symbiotic connectedness illustrates the theological principle of shalom—a mutual flourishing.

When something disrupts this harmonious relationship, the whole system can break down, as seen in the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Since bacteria can share DNA with each other, they can also share ways of becoming resistant to antibiotics. When that happens, we must either develop new drugs (to which the bacteria will probably also become resistant) or find new ways of treating diseases. Vaccinations against disease-causing bacteria are much more effective than treating them with antibiotics, because they not only prevent people from getting sick in the first place (and thus infecting others), but it is extremely difficult for bacteria to become resistant to our immune systems. The pertussis vaccine is a great example of circumventing this problem while protecting the most vulnerable—babies—from whooping cough. Of course, this does not mean that we should never take antibiotics. But we should use more care, prescribe them only to treat confirmed bacterial infections, and if possible, prescribe drugs that will not kill off healthy bacteria.

And the concern involves more than the medical community. Most antibiotics used in the U.S. each year are in livestock to prevent disease and keep their weight up—which many public health advocates believe generates antibiotic-resistant germs that transfer to humans. While some countries ban this practice or allow only antibiotics that are not used in human treatments, the U.S. does not regulate this practice. However, more and more companies advertise their meats as “antibiotic free,” reflecting people’s awareness of this practice and their demand for alternatives, even though it usually translates to higher meat costs.

Consumers play an important role in curbing rampant overuse in food as well as other products. A recent trend toward “antibacterial” everything, including soap, cosmetics, plastic cutting boards, toothpaste, etc., introduced new chemicals into myriad products. In addition to increasing the likelihood of bacteria’s resistance to these chemicals, the substances are potentially harmful to the environment. In September 2016, the FDA reported that these chemicals were not shown to effectively control bacteria and increased the risk of creating resistant bacteria—17 of those substances are now banned in certain products like soap.

As a professor, I hope that as my students learn how to ask scientific questions, design experiments, and interpret results, they will also come to see the goodness in bacteria and resist misinformation like…well…the plague. As a Christian, I believe that many of the recent findings in microbiology illustrate God’s good purpose in creating bacteria and allow us to marvel at the intricate and complex relationships God created among all His creatures.