Harmless and beneficial bacteria far outnumber harmful varieties. Thousands of bacterial species live commensally in humans, and many provide health benefits to humans, aiding in digestion, for example, or helping to prevent the establishment of colonies of pathogenic bacteria. Because they are capable of producing so many enzymes necessary for the building up and breaking down of organic compounds, bacteria are employed extensively by humans—for soil enrichment with leguminous crops (see nitrogen cycle), for preservation by pickling, for fermentation (as in the manufacture of alcoholic beverages, vinegar, and certain cheeses), for decomposition of organic wastes (in septic tanks, in some sewage disposal plants, and in agriculture for soil enrichment) and toxic wastes, and for curing tobacco, retting flax, and many other specialized processes. Bacteria frequently make good objects for genetic study: large populations grown in a short period of time facilitate detection of mutations, or rare variations.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.