Although in Biblical times the people knew nothing about bacteria, some of the verses about cleanliness indicates that there was knowledge about how infectious diseases were spread from person to person.
Also, the Old Testament dictums about food restrictions (that many Jews still adhere to) were probably written to avoid the known sickness from food poisoning while the ancient Hebrews were in the desert, far from many sources of fresh food.
Some chemistry and microbiology of food preservation
However, all creatures 'great and small' are part of our Universe, and certainly the benefits of 'good bugs' were mentioned in the Bible in regard to the production of bread, wine, cheeses, and other preserved foods. For example: Ruth 2:14 “And Boaz said to her, at mealtime come thou hither, and eat of the bread, and dip thy morsel in the vinegar…”
George T Javor explains that many different types of vinegars can be made from most agricultural products; the word vinegar comes from two French words meaning 'diseased wine'. He gives a simple chemistry 'lesson' in his essay “The bible and microbiology”. He explains that first, yeasts (a type of micro-organism) ferment the sugars in fruits, vegetables and grains into alcohol (an antiseptic and preservative in drinks) and also carbon dioxide (the 'bubbles' that cause bread to rise, or leaven).
And …. later, if air is let into the mixture, other bacteria (different types of micro-organisms), and the oxygen in the air itself, will convert the alcohol to acetic acid – which is vinegar. Because it is acid, it destroys many harmful bacteria and stops food spoilage.
Beneficial micro-organisms help keep us healthy
Over the last 14 years, with new methods of identifying micro-organisms by their DNA, scientists have revealed that we have many more bacteria in our bodies and on our skin than anyone ever thought possible. They knew already that there were some 'good bugs' that helped keep the 'bad bugs' (pathogenic bacteria and fungi that cause disease) out of our bodies, but they had no idea that there were so many.
They have also found many surprises; some amazing examples are:
- Most people have a different population of micro-organisms on each hand – and these remain there even after washing.
- There have been examples of two completely different bacteria on different peoples' tongues that do the same job of helping to break down sugars.
- A study of dental plaque from ancient remains compared with modern human mouths has shown a remarkable reduction in the number of micro-organisms in the mouth. There was a sudden change around the time farming was introduced, with the introduction of more bugs that break down sugars and carbohydrates. Some researchers, including an Australian group, wonder if this change in the types of bacteria of our mouths can cause dental disease in modern societies; and it may also have implications for protection against some other common 'diseases of the first world.'
- There are more different fungi on the foot than anywhere else on the body, and many of these protect our feet from the 'bad guys'.
- Our resident micro-organisms also contain viruses, most of them parasites on the resident bacteria ('bacteriophages'), and about 20% of them change over time.
Micro-organisms in the soil benefit plants
Research into the horticultural development of a range of plants in recent years has identified the importance of fungi and other micro-organisms in the soil, in maintaining the health of the plants. These have a range of functions, most of which involve an exchange of nutrients between the plants and the little soil bugs, to the benefit of both. They are called mycorhrhizeal fungi.
I have also written in another article about the new findings on the importance of 'information' being sent via chemical messages from plant to plant via fungi in the soil.
Orchids are some of the most highly specialised plants. Recent efforts to preserve rare orchids in Victoria have involved researchers at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Melbourne, along with volunteers from nine land care groups, collecting some samples containing the fungi from the actual tissue of the plant near its roots. Once isolated in the lab, this fungus will be used in the mixture to raise seeds of these rare orchids. The project will take 5 years before there are viable orchids ready to be released into the wild.
Soil micro-organisms also improve indoor air quality
It has been found that there are about 900 pollutant chemicals in a typical office building. The air conditioners filter out the large particles, and the refreshment of air means the concentrations of these chemicals is very low, but it sometimes remains higher than outside. In many of these buildings, it is not possible to open windows – but the beneficial effects of indoor plants have been known for generations. In the 1980s, NASA did some systematic research on the removal of some of these volatile compounds by potted plants inside space stations.
More recent experimentation has shown that it is not only the plants (which use carbon dioxide and produce oxygen if they are in the light), but the very micro-organisms in the soil in the pot that are helping to metabolise and degrade some of these noxious chemicals.
“All creatures great and small”
I hope you will join me in being more thankful for all God's creatures, even those that are too small for us to see. I now know that, not only are some of them the 'good guys', but that many of these beneficial micro-organisms can help protect our bodies and our environment from the 'bad guys'.
I will also be more respectful of the 'boffins' who do the research to find these things out, although sometimes it seems they are not really involved in the wider world, they never know when their results will be useful.
(this is an adaptation of an earlier science article)
Dr Mark Tronson is a Baptist minister (retired) who served as the Australian cricket team chaplain for 17 years (2000 ret) and established Life After Cricket in 2001. He was recognised by the Olympic Ministry Medal in 2009 presented by Carl Lewis Olympian of the Century. He mentors young writers and has written 24 books, and enjoys writing. He is married to Delma, with four adult children and grand-children. Dr Tronson writes a daily article for Christian Today Australia (since 2008) and in November 2016 established Christian Today New Zealand. Dr Mark Tronson’s Press Service International in 2019 was awarded the Australasian Religious Press Association’s premier award, The Gutenberg.
Mark Tronson's archive of articles can be viewed at