Biology For Dummies

Part VI The Part of Tens

Chapter 23

Ten Ways Biology Affects Your Life

In This Chapter

Seeing how biology provides you with the essentials (food, clean water, and life)

Discovering how humans manipulate organisms to create designer genes, medicines, and more

Sometimes science seems like something that happens in a lab somewhere far removed from everyday life. That may be, but the effects of scientific research have a huge impact on your day-to-day existence, from the food you eat to the energy that powers your home. Following is a rundown of ten important ways that biology affects your life. Most are good; others aren’t so good. Either way, you just may be surprised by a couple of them.

Keeping You Fed

 First off, if plants didn’t produce their own food, you wouldn’t have anything to eat — period. So you can thank the process of photosynthesis (covered in Chapter 5) the next time you sit down to a luscious-looking salad or steak dish.

What you may or may not be aware of is that plants aren’t the only organisms that make food. People do too. They make foods such as yogurt, cheese, bread, sausages, pickles, tempeh, and more in part by fermenting bacteria and yeast.

Putting Microbial Enzymes to Work

Microbes aren’t just for making foods; they have a wide variety of industrial applications too. Manufacturers put bacterial enzymes in laundry detergent to help break down greasy stains and meat tenderizers in meats to help break down proteins. If you take vitamin C, chances are that vitamin was produced by a fungus. If you drink a protein shake regularly, the amino acids in that shake probably also came from bacteria. So you see, not all microbes are to be feared. Some of them actually improve your life by simplifying tasks and keeping you healthy.

Designing Genes

The food you eat could very likely contain genetically modified organisms (GMOs) — living things whose genes have been altered by scientists in order to give them useful traits. For example, crop plants may be engineered to better resist pests, and animals may be treated with hormones to increase their growth or milk production.

Obtaining Fossil Fuels for Energy

The fossil fuels that power modern society are the remnants of photosynthesis from long ago. Way back in the Carboniferous period, about 350 million years ago, green algae, plants, and bacteria harvested energy from the Sun and transformed that light energy into the chemical energy stored in their cells. When these living things died, they were deposited in such a way that their remains converted into coal, natural gas, and oil.

Of course, people are now facing a problem as the reserves of these fossil fuels start to run low. But maybe one solution to the problem lies in mimicking the green organisms that stockpiled this energy in the first place — people could act like plants and go solar!

Causing and Treating Infectious Disease

Whenever you get sick from an infectious disease, such as a cold or strep throat, you’re dealing with the reproduction of an alien invader. Your immune system springs into action, activating the cells necessary to fight the invasion and keep the infectious virus or bacteria from replicating itself any further. Also, whenever you take an antibiotic, you’re taking a medicine made by an organism such as a fungus or a bacterium.

Staying Alive

 Every minute of every day, your cells are quietly working away, digesting your food, sending signals that control your responses, transporting oxygen around your body, contracting so you can move, and making all of your other bodily processes happen. If your cells weren’t functioning, your tissues, organs, and organ systems wouldn’t be either.

Providing You with Clean Water

You have wetlands to thank for the clean water you enjoy. Wetlands are areas that are saturated by water most of the time. They act like natural sponges, holding onto water and slowly filtering it around the plants that live there. As water slowly filters through wetlands, plants and microorganisms have time to absorb human wastes such as fertilizers and sewage, cleaning the water and making it safer for humans and other animals to consume. All life on Earth needs water — clean, fresh water — in order to be healthy, so wetlands are pretty important to your quality of life. Unfortunately, wetlands are under incredible pressure from development and oil exploration, and they’re disappearing at a rapid rate.

Another way living things help keep water clean is through sewage treatment. Bacteria break down the organic matter in sewage, helping to clean the water before it’s released back into the environment.

Changing Physically and Mentally

Chances are that at some point in your life you either were or will be “ruled” by your hormones. Case in point: You meet someone you’re attracted to, signals cause hormones to be released, and suddenly your conscious mind isn’t making all the decisions. If that example doesn’t convince you of the power of hormones, just think back to puberty. During that time, your body went through an incredible transformation based solely on the signals from these potent chemical messengers.

Creating Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria

When people use antibiotics, the susceptible bacteria die first, leaving behind the most resistant cells. These super-resistant cells multiply and take over the available space. As this scenario repeats over time, populations of bacteria eventually become resistant to antibiotics. This fact explains why sometimes doctors don’t have the drugs to help people who are infected with an antibiotic-resistant bacteria, such as MRSA (which stands for methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus).

Facing Extinction

Perhaps you don’t think about extinction much, but it’s something worth being aware of. If you need an example, consider the case of polar bears. As global temperatures rise, the polar ice is melting, leaving polar bears with less and less habitat. Not quite so noticeable, but also endangered, are 1,900 other species of plants and animals.

 As humans convert more land and resources to their own uses, less and less habitat is available for the other organisms on Earth. Each species needs certain conditions and resources to thrive, and the sheer number of humans on Earth is threatening to overwhelm many ecosystems. That spells bad news for humans because we depend upon the health of ecosystems for our own survival. For example, as humans develop coastal regions, we’re drastically reducing the area of our estuaries, which are important breeding grounds for many species offish. This decrease in breeding grounds results in fewer fish in the oceans, which is bad for marine life and people. (Up to 80 percent of fish species that are harvested commercially spend some part of their lives in estuaries.)