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What's Good About Sewer Bacteria? More Than You Think...

When you flush the toilet or drain your tub, the water goes into the sewer. It's not a place your mom would want you looking for stuff. But a scientist with ARS was looking there as part of his job--and he found something that might someday help run cars or televisions.

Microbiologist Paul Bishop found bacteria there called WWTP. That stands for "water waste treatment plant," the place where sewer water ends up. This special bacteria releases hydrogen gas that could be collected and harnessed as biofuel. A biofuel is something from nature that makes energy. One example is corn that can be processed to make ethanol. Cars can run on ethanol like they do on gasoline. And someday cars might even run on bacterial gas.

Most people think bacteria are bad news. It's true that many can make you sick. But other bacteria in your stomach protect you from illness. Others help you digest food. WWTP is one of the good guys.

WWTP is so tiny you can't see it without a microscope. But as far as its bacteria buddies are concerned, it's huge. WWTP is four to five times the size of typical soil bacteria.

WWTP can also help people in other ways. It can help farmers grow more corn, beans and other foods. It does this by helping the crops get nitrogen, an element plants need as food. Usually, the soil provides all the nitrogen the plant needs. But sometimes bacteria like WWTP can help the soil do a better job.

Scientists want to know more about how WWTP and bacteria like it make nitrogen. People make nitrogen for farmers in factories--but that can cause pollution. It may be that WWTP's way to make nitrogen pollutes less.

Paul Bishop doesn't just hang out in yucky places like sewers to find his helpful bacteria. Another "big bac" he found is SM(2). It was living in a salt marsh in Beaufort, North Carolina. Another one, WB3, was found on Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina.

What would happen if there were no such thing as bacteria?
1) Everybody would be healthy.
2) Things would smell nicer.
3) There would be no yogurt, pickles or cheese.

--By Jill Lee, formerly, Agricultural Research Service Information Staff

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