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Bacillus

Bacillus is everywhere, the party never stops in the Bacillus house. Salt, heat, cold, drought. Bacillus don’t care, they can hang. They’ve got a survival structure called an endospore, making them virtually indestructible. They mostly like to breathe oxygen, but they can also ferment without it. Bacillus are part of the phylum Firmicutes (makes me think of those vegan ice cream sandwiches, Tofutti Cuties).

Bacillus dominate the entire composting process, being one of the most abundant organisms during all three phases. During the thermophilic phase, mesophilic organisms die back, and it is Bacillus and Actinobacteria that co-dominate this phase, degrading most of the lignocellulose material (plant cell walls, woody and carbonaceous) that goes into humus formation.

Bacillus subtilis is a species that is not pathogenic but can contaminate and spoil food. They are naturally found in mesophilic environments in the upper soil layer, where they support plant nutrient cycling and disease suppression through the production of antibiotics and anti-fungal compounds. They’re also becoming part of probiotic blends as they include more soil-based organisms.

There are some other more notorious species of Bacillus: B. anthracis causes anthrax, and B. cereus causes food poisoning.

B. thuringensis produces a toxin that can kill insects and is used as an insecticide. A portion of the Bt genome has been incorporated into into some food crops like corn, making it more resistant to pests. Bt is approved for organic certification as a biological pesticide. During sporulation they produce crystal proteins (cry proteins) called gamma-endotoxins which are insecticidal, with specific action against moths and butterflies, flies and mosquitoes, beetles, wasps, ants, sawflies, and nematodes. 

Multiple insects have developed resistance to Bt and it can have effects on non-target organisms like monarch butterflies. Bt foods are linked to leaky gut and autoimmune disorders, as well as allergies and developmental disabilities.

So there’s few outliers from the rest of the pack, 3 species pose dangers to human health. The rest of them have been hanging out with us all along. Everywhere in the soil, compost, and in our bodies. Harness some of that ubiquitous, indestructible protection with some artifacts of micro-cosmic wonder.

Check out the rest of the bacteria in the Cosmic Compost series

Cosmic Compost: A design collection celebrating the microscopic universe in the dust beneath our feet, acknowledging some of the most significant microbial players in the ecology of decomposition through the aesthetic of cosmic wonder.

Greeting Cards + Postcards:

Art Prints + Collectibles:

Soilify! A complete course series on Soil + Compost Ecology for creative activists, community composters, and small-scale farmers.

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Leuconostoc

Love on your local soil steward with some microbial art!

Leuconostoc is another friendly fermenter that generally hangs out with Lactobacillus. It is quietly known in fermentation industries like the production of sourdough, sauerkraut, kombucha, kefir, and sausage, for their contribution to flavor. They transform glucose into CO2, alcohol, and lactic acid. They also hang out on spoiling food, growing and fresh vegetables, and manure. It’s fascinating how the same material transforms in our perception from good to bad in a matter of time.

Strains of Leuconostoc have been found to inhibit growth of Listeria, which causes serious infectious outbreaks from people eating contaminated food. There have been Listeria outbreaks on food products documented by the CDC every year for the last 8 years.

That’s the idea behind encouraging friendly microbes like probiotics and compost. The more diverse and abundant micro-organisms there are, the more competition there is for food and resources in general. This helps keep levels of pathogenic micro-organisms low, so they won’t cause an outbreak. Diversity helps create the opportunity to generate new compounds that can fight pathogens, and boost overall resilience against changing environmental conditions. Encouraging diversity in all ways is a general principle of ecological design.

Lactobacillus and Leuconostoc are great because they are adaptable to anaerobic and aerobic conditions. The initial compost pile consists of pockets of anaerobic activity, such as within the food waste or fresh manure inputs. They contribute to the initial dip in pH from the production of organic acids, which you can see in graph C below. It’s not long before all of the initial metabolic activity generates so much heat that these organisms make themselves obsolete, and thermotolerant or thermophilic organisms take over.

Ryckeboer et al, 2003

Check out the rest of the bacteria in the Cosmic Compost series

Cosmic Compost: A design collection celebrating the microscopic universe in the dust beneath our feet, acknowledging some of the most significant microbial players in the ecology of decomposition through the aesthetic of cosmic wonder.

Greeting Cards + Postcards:

Art Prints + Collectibles:

Soilify! A complete course series on Soil + Compost Ecology for creative activists, community composters, and small-scale farmers.

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Not all Microbes are Evil, Friendship for Everyone

Not all microbes are voracious plague eaters ready to inoculate, destroy, and compost all of us. In fact, most of them are our friends. But, we tend not to hear about our friends because they don’t make waves like E. Coli outbreaks on lettuce and broccoli. Lactobacillus is a friendly fermenting bacteria that has been gaining notoriety because of its innocuous ubiquity in fermented foods, our bodies and digestive systems, as well as soil and compost.

Our fear of pathogenic microbes has made us fearful of all of them, the friendly ones included. That’s a shame, because the the friendly ones are actually very powerful allies that protect us by boosting nutrition and immunity, and by reducing stress.

It helps to get to know who your friends are. Just like in any landscape where you are trying to establish your livelihood and presence, you want to identify your friends – your supporters and allies who will look out for you. That helps to distinguish who is helpful and who is not.

Advances in high-throughput sequencing over the last decade have made it more accessible and affordable than ever, vastly expanding our knowledge and understanding of microbial ecologies, biodiversity, and population dynamics. We now know how there are great similarities and overlap in microbial community composition between soil, plant, and human systems. There can be 10 times more microbial cells in our bodies than human cells. Research suggest bacteria maintain a majority of the evolutionary origin of our own genetic material, and some believe we as multi-cellular organisms evolved as collectives of bacteria that cooperated so well they formed a whole new reproducing organism.

Microbiomes function similarly for soil, plants, and humans. They increase metabolic efficiency and nutrient availability and uptake, improve immune function and protection against pathogenic outbreaks, modulate stress and anxiety (climatic and environmental for soil and plants, mental and emotional for humans), and provide a source of novel genetic and epigenetic material for increased resilience and adaptability to changing environmental conditions.

In the words of Charlie’s musical song, “The Nightman Cometh,” from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, why not have “friendship for everyone”.

Cosmic Compost is a celebration of our microbial allies that help maintain a healthy ecology for us to have clean air, water, soil, and food. It utilizes watercolor art to raise our collective awareness and literacy around soil, compost, human health, and microbes. Share your love of our microbial friends with your favorite humans by writing them a love letter or pouring them a cup of tea in a microbial mug.

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Lactobacillus

Friendly fermenter, the microbe of greatest notoriety, Lactobacillus transcends the soil, plant, human continuum. It is best known for its ubiquitous and simple initiatory ferment: sauerkraut. The most mundane of food preservation techniques, gifted to us by a time-honored evolutionary mutualism between cabbage, Brassica oleracea, and Lactobacillus. The original inoculum for fermenting vegetables. All that is needed is cabbage, chopped and shredded, a tablespoon of salt, massaged in well and marinated for a few minutes, before being submersed in water and kept quiet for a few days. The Lactobacillus naturally occurring on the cabbage surface proliferates in the salty brine, returning to us a tangy, extra nutritious food.

Lactobacillus is found in many parts of our bodies, including our digestive system, oral cavity, and urinary and reproductive systems. We have a mutualistic relationship with them, as their presence helps provide protection against pathogenic organisms, and they assist us with digestion of food and increased nutrient uptake, as well as generating precursors to neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin, supporting modulation of stress and anxiety.

They are found in the initial phase of composting, as they enter the compost pile through fresh food waste and other feedstock materials like manure and brewery waste. While fermentation is mostly an anaerobic process, Lactobacillus is a facultative anaerobe. They are aerotolerant and can engage in fermentation even when oxygen is present. They are rod-shaped, Gram-positive bacteria, usually straight, often found in pairs or chains of differing lengths.

During the initial phase of composting, the most easy to digest materials, such as simple sugars and carbohydrates, lipids, and amino acids, are the first to be metabolized through fermentation and oxidation reactions. Decomposer communities begin to colonize the pile. Their increased metabolic activity increases the heat generated from the pile.

Because it is critical to food production and the growing probiotics supplement industry, Lactobacillus has become one of the most well known microbes in our culture. The increasing advances in technologies for microbial ecology research have also nurtured a plethora of papers, books, courses, and other publications on the significance of gut microbiota in human health, further supporting our understanding of Lactobacillus.

Don’t let the simplicity of water, salt, and cabbage fool you. There’s the essence of so much that connects us to the ecology of plants and soil. From compost to ferment to human resilience and back again, Lactobacillus brings it all together. 

Show off your love and adoration for this potent probiotic through greeting cards, posters, art prints, stickers, notebooks, throw pillows, and mugs from RedBubble.

Check out the rest of the bacteria in the Cosmic Compost series

Greeting Cards + Postcards:

Art Prints + Collectibles:

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