Bacteria (singular: bacterium) is a large group of unicellular microorganisms. Formerly known as Eubactaria or "true bacteria" to distinguish them from Archaea (formerly known as archeabacteria), they are thought to have evolved separately from common ancestor early in Earth's history. Bacteria have a wide range of shapes, ranging from spheres to rods and spirals, and are typically a few micrometres in length.
Photo: The Leptospira bacterium, which causes serious disease in livestock
Bacteria are often maligned as the causes of human and animal disease (like the one shown above, Leptospira, which causes serious disease in livestock). However, certain bacteria, the actinomycetes, produce antibiotics such as streptomycin and nocardicin; others live symbiotically in the guts of animals (including humans) or elsewhere in their bodies, or on the roots of certain plants, converting nitrogen into a usable form. Bacteria put the tang in yogurt and the sour in sourdough bread; bacteria help to break down dead organic matter; bacteria make up the base of the food web in many environments. Bacteria are of such immense importance because of their extreme flexibility, capacity for rapid growth and reproduction, and great age - the oldest fossils known, nearly 3.5 billion years old, are fossils of bacteria-like organisms.
Bacteria are ubiquitous in every habitat on Earth, growing in soil, acidic hot springs, radioactive waste, water, and deep in the Earth's crust, as well as in organic matter and the live bodies of plants and animals. There are typically 40 million bacterial cells in a gram of soil and a million bacterial cells in a millilitre of fresh water; in all, there are approximately five nonillion (5×1030) bacteria on Earth, forming much of the world's biomass. Bacteria are vital in recycling nutrients, with many steps in nutrient cycles depending on these organisms, such as the fixation of nitrogen from the atmosphere and putrefaction. However, most bacteria have not been characterized, and only about half of the phyla of bacteria have species that can be grown in the laboratory. The study of bacteria is known as bacteriology, a branch of microbiology. READ MORE IN-DEPTH »