Itty-bitty creatures that sustain life

PhytoplanktonMost of you will be as surprised as I was to learn about some unlikely creatures that perform such incredible feats that without their combined efforts we humans would not be able to survive—nor would the rest of life on earth.

Let’s begin with the termite. Bet you thought those pesky critters were only good for eating houses and spewing methane into the air.

But their gut is filled with nitrogen-fixing bacteria and they transport that gut through the soil, distributing nitrogen everywhere.

No nitrogen, no protein. No nitrogen, no DNA. No nitrogen, no life.

Seventy-eight percent of the atmosphere is nitrogen. Termites are not the only link to getting nitrogen into the soil, plants and animals, but it is an essential one.

The two chemists who figured out how to ‘fix’ nitrogen into fertilizer are credited with saving 3.5 billion people from starvation.

Termites have kept many times more animals alive. But they didn’t win Nobel prizes like the chemists!

There is a group of vitamin-making bacteria so important that, if they went on strike, the world as we know it would be over. These are the ones that make vitamin B12, an essential nutrient that keeps your red blood cells oxygenating your blood and maintaining your ability to control the bowel.

These bacteria are the only ones in possession of the enzymes to make them work. And they generously supply their finished product to the world!

And then there are the ice-nucleating bacteria. These specific bacteria have what’s called an ice-nucleating protein on their exteriors.

When the bacteria are blown through the air, this protein encourages the formation of ice crystals at relatively high temperatures—the first step in making it rain, which brings the bacteria to the ground. The organisms start in Antarctica, the Yukon and the French Alps and travel all over the world by nudging patterns in global rainfall.

Phytoplankton are the ‘bottom’ of the ocean’s food chain, but without this ‘bottom’ much of the’ top’ of the food chain would go missing.

Trees get the credit for the oxygen we breathe, but HALF of all the oxygen we need comes from the tiny phytoplankton in the oceans (whose populations have been decreasing over the last several years).

We all know that earthworms are good. They break down organic matter in the soil and aerate the earth. But they are more than that. Earthworms are virtually the lifeblood of the soil as they transport everything through it.

Archeology owes much to earthworms because within a few years many artifacts have been preserved by the castings deposited around them by these worms.

Read more at http://io9.com (Ten tiny creatures you didn’t realize were controlling your world)