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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

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