Multiple organisms

We don't have enough respect for bacteria. First, they prepared the planet for the arrival of we oxygen-breathers, and long after we are gone they will remain to clear up our mess. Including our oil spills, as it turns out. Researchers have noticed a reduction in levels of oxygen in the water around the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. It seems that not all life is choked by the Deepwater Horizon slick; the oxygen depletion is occurring because oil-loving bacteria are congregating at the site and having a feast. Although we tend to think of ourselves as the pinnacle of evolution, bacteria have a much stronger claim. They have been adapting to their environment and forming an essential part of the ecosystem for over 3.5 billion years. Human beings have graced the planet for just 200,000 years.

Human ingenuity may have begun to harness some of the bacterium's skill set - Craig Venter's attempts to create synthetic organisms that perform useful tasks, for example - but it's only playing catch-up. We are at best co-opting evolution's labour force.

We are now dumping something else in the Gulf: fertiliser. The nitrogen and phosphates aid the growth of the dozen or so kinds of bacteria that feed on oil. It is an admission that, in the end, it will be marine bacteria, not we, who deal with the Deepwater Horizon spill.

Bacteria are infinitely versatile. Various kinds feed on concrete, iron and sulphur. There are some that metabolise uranium, changing it from the radioactive, toxic and water-soluble element found in nuclear waste dumps to a less harmful form.

Many are virtually indestructible. They can be found in hot springs, natural lakes of melted asphalt, in deep-ocean "black smoker" vents where water gushes out from the earth's crust at 400°C. In fact, there is no environment they won't colonise. They are as happy in Antarctic ice as they are living in your computer keyboard.

The office is perhaps where the futility of our attempts to rule over them is most obvious. Microbiology research has shown that the average "clean" office is a bacterial haven, with your desktop home to 400 times more bacteria than a toilet seat. Favourite haunt? The telephone handset.

It's not just the objects around you, though. Ninety-five per cent of "your" body isn't you: almost all of the biological cells you are carrying are actually bacteria. And there are more bacteria in your colon than the total number of people who have ever lived. If you were looking for some perspective on our place on the planet, relative to our impact, I think you just got it.

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.