This was the conclusion of a team of British and Canadian scientists who published their research in Nature this week.

According to the researchers this finding has important implications for the way in which microbiologists view bacterial communities.

Rather than searching for superbugs that are capable of breaking down a pollutant alone, it might be better to search for efficient communities that work particularly well together.

The break-through finding was made by a team of researchers from the University of Oxford, the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, and the University of Guelph while looking at how bacteria break down leaves.

Rather than taking the traditional approach of simply observing the process performed by particular communities of bacteria, the researchers separated the communities into their constituent species and then constructed different combinations of the species in bottles in the laboratory.
In each of the bottles they then measured the rate at which leaves were broken down, a crucial service by which bacteria recycle nutrients to plants.

Significantly, the number of species of bacteria, or biodiversity, was important in determining the rate at which the leaves were broken down.

The most efficient service was not primarily the result of specific species – the leaf litter was broken down most quickly when many different species were working together.

Thomas Bell, based at Oxford University’s Department of Zoology and the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, said: “Bacteria are of vital importance for many services that we take for granted, for example they break down the pollutants and municipal waste that we produce, so any step toward understanding how these communities operate is significant.

“The study suggests that to understand the details of how these services are provided require that we now concentrate on how bacteria operate together as whole communities.

“Such research is already underway in several industries, but this work signals that many surprises remain on the horizon.”

By Sam Bond

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie