Bacteria that changed the world: Alcanivorax

In our Bacterial World exhibition we offer a selection of ten bacteria that have changed the world, some in profound ways. In this series of short fact-file posts we present one of the ten each week. This week’s bacteria are…

Alcanivorax borkumensis
– the oil-eaters

Where they live
Seas around the world are host to small numbers of Alcanivorax borkumensis. But if there is an oil spill, its numbers skyrocket, as the species feeds on crude oil.

Why they are important
After the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, when the equivalent of 4.2 million barrels of oil gushed into the sea off Houston, Texas, Alcanivorax borkumensis unexpectedly helped reduce the environmental impact of the disaster.

How they are named
Alcanivorax borkumensis voraciously eats oil molecules called alkanes, giving the first part of the name. The second part recalls where scientists first spotted the species, around Borkum Island in the North Sea.

How they work
The species breaks down crude oil using a range of enzymes it produces naturally. It can consume a wider range of alkane molecules than other bacterial species, and so it becomes the dominant species in a contaminated area.

Top image: : Dr. Joanna Lecka, Tayssir Kadri, Prof. Satinder Kaur Brar (INRS)

Bacteria that changed the world: Prochlorococcus

In our Bacterial World exhibition we offer a selection of ten bacteria that have changed the world, some in profound ways. In this series of short fact-file posts we present one of the ten each week. This week’s bacteria are…

Prochlorococcus
– the Oxygen-Makers

Where they live
Prochlorococcus bacteria grow anywhere damp, in salt water or fresh. They are similar to the blue cyanobacteria which thrived in the far-distant past on Earth.

Why they are important
2.3-2.4 billion years ago, cyanobacteria in the oceans began producing oxygen for the first time, changing the Earth’s environment completely.

How they are named
The Greek word for blue is cyan, giving the blue cyanobacteria their name. Until recently, they were known as blue-green algae, but cyanobacteria are actually an earlier and simpler form of life than algae.

How they work
Like all cyanobacteria, Prochlorococcus bacteria harvest energy from the Sun, absorb carbon dioxide and give out oxygen – the process called photosynthesis.

Top image: Transmission Electron Micrograph (TEM) image of Prochlorococcus coloured green
Copyright: Luke Thompson, Chisholm Lab; Nikki Watson, Whitehead (MIT), 2007

Bacterial Girl


We couldn’t resist. The moment we came up with the title of our special exhibition, Bacterial World, we were all humming Madonna’s 1985 hit. So here it is – a bacteria-themed version of Material Girl – written, performed and illustrated by the talented Museum team.

In place of “cold hard cash”, you’ll learn that bacteria were involved in the creation of life on Earth, and you’ll find DNA exchange and photosynthesis in place of kisses and hugs. Have a listen… and try to stop yourself dancing.

Of course, you’ll need the full lyrics to sing it in your bedroom with a hairbrush:

BACTERIAL GIRL

Some bugs make you feel unwell
And we’ve all heard of them
But look inside and you will find
That bacteria are your friend

They’ve been around since way back when
In the ocean life began
But nowadays they’re everywhere
So I think you’ll understand, that we are…

Living in a bacterial world
And I am a bacterial girl
You know that we are
Living in a bacterial world
And I am a bacterial girl

They spent some time in the sun
Began to photosynthesise
Put oxygen in the air we breathe
I’m telling you no lies

Now E. coli’s got a real bad rep
For causing people pain
But what you got to realise
Is it’s only one bad strain

’cause we are
Living in a bacterial world
And I am a bacterial girl
You know that we are
Living in a bacterial world
And I am a bacterial girl

Now some bugs love to snuggle up to
Exchange their DNA
Other cells are armed with spears
That wipe enemies away

Resistance to our medicines
You could call it evolution
But microbes might just hold the key
To a medical solution, ’cause we are

Living in a bacterial world
And I am a bacterial girl
You know that we are
Living in a bacterial world
And I am a bacterial girl

You know that we are

Living in a bacterial world
And I am a bacterial girl!

Bacterial World is open until 28 May 2019.

Credits for this little bit of brilliance go to:
Vocals, violin: Laura Ashby
Words, banjo, guitar, recording: Scott Billings
Illustrations: Chris Jarvis