The Diversity of Bacteria


The diversity of microbes on this planet is so large and unknown that it is almost too big to estimate. There have been some fascinating findings recently that indicate that the number of microbe species is much, much larger than anyone even guessed.

In the past, scientists were only able to culture and grow relatively few bacteria species. It was naturally assumed from this that there weren’t many more species out there. But, recent advances in DNA science has opened the door to a vast, unknown realm of microbes.


Sampling the DNA in soil showed that there had to be thousands of times more kinds of microbes than was previously thought. Remember we are talking about diversity in kinds of microbes and not overall populations!

The world of large animals, that is everything from insects to reptiles to mammals contains 13 phyla. In 2004 there were 80 such large divisions of bacteria from which no one had previously every been able to culture even one representative! Each of these 80 large divisions is thought to contain millions if not hundreds of millions of species! Now some scientists estimate that the number of microbe species is in the range of billions!


We know that very few bacteria cause disease and the vast majority are harmless or beneficial to humans. The truth is that with so many species of microbes out there, we know so very little about what they do. There are billions of them in a gram of soil or a liter of water, but for the most part, we know nothing about them.

No only do we not know what all those species can do, we don’t know what the capabilities are of the few that we are familiar with.

Once again, DNA studies have revealed some fascinating findings in this area. The bacterium from which Ivermectin, an extremely useful drug, is derived, has been shown to have over 30 different gene sequences, each of which should be able to make a potentially useful drug for us. But we only know of 3 molecules coming from this particular bacteria. That leaves 27 potential drugs that we don’t know about from this one bacteria alone!

We are just now getting a glimpse of the extent this wonderful field of study. It is still opening up right before our eyes and it promises to be endless! What a marvelous endeavor!

As Professor emeritus E. O. Wilson said, “… [A world] even stranger and vastly more complex living world virtually without end.”

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