Bacterial network

Streptomyces live in almost all kinds of soil. They form a network (mycelium) of long, branching cells (hyphae). In this way, they proliferate between soil particles, plant roots, and the fungal hyphae similar to them. Streptomyces is the most common bacterium in some soils and is of great ecological importance. When there is a lack of nutrients, Streptomyces develops aerial hyphae and eventually spores from them, arranged like a string of pearls. In these permanent forms, the genetic material of the bacteria remains intact even under adverse conditions. In warmth, humidity, and good nutrient conditions, the spores germinate and form new hyphae.

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Humus thanks to Streptomyces

Streptomyces secrete numerous enzymes and use them to break down many complex substances, for example, substances that are difficult to split, such as cellulose from wood or chitin from insect carapaces and fungi. The resulting smaller fragments serve as nutrients for the streptomyces. In this way, the bacteria ensure the recycling of plant fibres and the remains of dead organisms. Streptomyces also break down hard-to-digest substances in the intestines of earthworms, termites, and other creatures. Streptomyces contribute significantly to the ecological material cycle as well as to the formation of compost and humus. In addition, the bacteria excrete complicated, often strikingly coloured molecules that can be of inestimable importance for our health.

Producing drugs

Several thousand very different organic molecules are known from Streptomyces today. These stimulate the growth of plants, suppress other bacteria (antibiotics), inhibit fungi (fungicides), or act against parasites (antiparasitics). Some also influence our immune system or prevent the growth of tumours (cytostatics). Some insects also make use of these remarkable properties. They live in close community with the bacteria and thus benefit from the defence against harmful microorganisms.

To date, Streptomyces is the most successful supplier of antibiotic agents that can be used therapeutically, accounting for around 70% of our antibiotics. Current studies suggest that many more hitherto unknown treasures from Streptomyces may be unearthed in the coming years.

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