Miscellaneous Use Of Bacteria In The Arts

( Originally Published 1897 )

THE foods upon which bacteria live are in endless variety, almost every product of animal or vegetable life serving to supply their needs. Some species appear to require somewhat definite kinds of food, and have therefore rather narrow conditions of life, but the majority may live upon a great variety of organic compounds. As they consume the material which serves them as food they produce chemical changes therein. These . changes are largely of a nature that the chemist knows as decomposition changes. By this is meant that the bacteria, seizing hold of ingredients which constitute their food, break them to pieces chemically. The molecule of the original food matter is split into simpler molecules, and the food is thus changed in its chemical nature. As a result, the compounds which appear in the decomposing solution are commonly simpler than the original food molecules. Such products are in general called decomposition products, or some-times cleavage products. Sometimes, however, the bacteria have, in addition to their power of pulling their food to pieces, a further power of building other compounds out of the fragments, thus building up as well as pulling down. But, how-ever they do it, bacteria when growing in any food, material have the power of giving rise to numerous products which did not exist in the food mass before. Because of their extraordinary powers of reproduction they are capable of producing these changes very rapidly and can give rise in a short time to large amounts of the peculiar products of their growth.

It is to these powers of producing chemical changes in their food that bacteria owe all their importance in the world. Their power of chemically destroying the food products is in itself of no little importance, but the products which arise as the result of this series of chemical changes are of an importance in the world which we are only just beginning to appreciate. In our attempt to outline the agency which bacteria play in our industries and in natural processes as well, we shall notice that they are sometimes of value simply for their power of producing decomposition; but their greatest value lies in the fact that they are important agents because of the products of their life.

We may notice, in the first place, that in the arts there are several industries which may properly be classed together as maceration industries, all of which are based upon the decomposition powers of bacteria. Hardly any animal or vegetable substance is able to resist their softening influence, and the artisan relies upon this power in several different directions.


Linen.—Linen consists of certain woody fibres of the stem of the flax. The flax stem is not made up entirely of the valuable fibres, but largely of more brittle wood fibres, which are of no use. The valuable fibres are, however, closely united with the wood and with each other in such an intimate fashion that it is impossible to separate them by any mechanical means. The whole cellular substance of the stem is bound together by some cementing materials which hold it in a compact mass, probably a salt of calcium and pectinic acid. The art of preparing flax is a process of getting rid of the worthless wood fibres and preserving the valuable, longer, tougher, and more valuable fibres, which are then made into linen. But to separate them it is necessary first to soften the whole tissue. This is always done through the aid of bacteria. The flax stems, after proper preparation, are exposed to the action of moisture and heat, which soon develops a rapid bacterial growth. Sometimes this is done by simply exposing the flax to the dew and rain and allowing it to lie thus exposed for some time. By another process the stems are completely immersed in water and allowed to remain for ten to fourteen days. By a third process the water in which the flax is immersed is heated from 750 to 90° F., with the addition of certain chemicals, for some fifty to sixty hours. In all cases the effect is the same. The moisture and the heat cause a growth of bacteria which proceeds with more or less rapidity according to the temperature and other conditions. A putrefactive fermentation is thus set up which softens the gummy substance holding the fibres together. The process is known as " retting," and after it is completed the fibres are easily isolated from each other. A purely mechanical process now easily separates the valuable fibres from the wood fibres. The whole process is a typical fermentation. A disagreeable odour arises from the fermenting flax, and the liquid after the fermentation is filled with products which make valuable manure. The process has not been scientifically studied until very recently. The bacillus which produces the " retting " is known now, however, and it has been shown that the "retting " is a process of decomposition of the pectin cement. No method of separating the linen fibres in the flax from the wood fibres has yet been devised which dispenses with the aid of bacteria.

Jute and Hemp.—Almost exactly the same use is made of bacterial action in' the manufacture of jute and hemp. The commercial aspect of the jute industry has grown to be a large one, involving many millions of dollars. Like linen, jute is a fibre of the inner bark of a plant, and is mixed in the bark with a mass of other useless fibrous material. As in the case of linen, a fermentation by bacteria is depended upon as a means of softening the material so that the fibres can be disassociated. The process is called "retting," as in the linen manufacture. The detail's of the process are somewhat different. The jute is commonly fermented in tanks of stagnant water, al-though sometimes it is allowed to soak in river water for a sufficient length of time to produce the softening. After the fermentation is thus started the jute fibre is separated from the wood, and is of a sufficient flexibility and toughness to be woven into sacking, carpets, curtains, table covers, and other coarse cloth.

Practically the same method-is used in separating the tough fibres of the hemp. The hemp plant contains some long flexible fibres with others of no value, and bacterial fermentation is relied upon to soften the tissues so that they may be separated.

Cocoanut fibre, a somewhat similar material, is obtained from the husk of the cocoanut by the same means. The unripened husk is allowed to steep and ferment in water for a long time, six months or a year being required. By this time the husk has become so softened that it can be beaten until the fibres separate and can be removed. They are subsequently made into a number of coarse articles, especially valuable for their toughness. Door mats, brushes, ships' fenders, etc., are illustrations of the sort of articles made from them.

In each of these processes the fermentation must have a tendency to soften the desired fibres as well as the connecting substance. Putrefaction attacks all kinds of vegetable tissue, and if this " retting " continues too long the desired fibre is decidedly injured by the softening effect of the fermentation. It is quite probable that, even as commonly carried on, the fermentation has some slight injurious effect upon the fibre, and that if some purely mechanical means could be devised for separating the fibre from the wood it would produce a better material. But such mechanical means has not been devised, and at present a putrefactive fermentation appears to be the only practical method of separating the fibres.

Sponges.—A somewhat similar use is made of bacteria in the commercial preparation of sponges. The sponge of commerce is simply the fibrous skeleton of a marine animal. When it is alive this skeleton is completely filled with the softer parts of the animal, and to fit the sponge for use this softer organic material must be got rid of. It is easily accomplished by rotting. The fresh sponges are allowed to stand in the warm sun and very rapidly decay. Bacteria make their way into the sponge and thoroughly decompose the soft tissues. After a short putrefaction of this sort the softened organic matter can be easily washed out of the skeleton and leave the clean fibre ready for market.

Leather preparation.—The tanning of leather is a purely chemical process, and in some processes the whole operation of preparing the leather is a chemical one. In others, however, especially in America, bacteria are brought into action at one stage. The dried hide which comes to the tannery must first have the hair removed together with the outer skin. The hide for this purpose must be moistened and softened. In some tanneries this is done by steeping it in chemicals. In others, however, it is put into water and slightly heated until fermentation arises. The fermentation softens it so that the outer skin can be easily removed with a knife, and the removal of hair is accomplished at the same time. Bacterial putrefaction in the tannery is thus an assistance in preparing the skin for the tanning proper. Even in the subsequent tanning a bacterial fermentation appears to play a part, but little is yet known in regard to it.

Maceration of skeletons.—The making of skeletons for museums and anatomical instruction in general is no very great industry, and yet it is one of importance. In the making of skeletons the process of maceration is commonly used as an aid. The maceration consists simply in allowing the skeleton to soak in water for a day or two after cleaning away the bulk of the muscles. The putrefaction that arises softens the connective tissues so much that the bones may be readily cleaned of flesh.

Citric acid.—Bacterial fermentation is employed also in the ordinary preparation of citric acid. The acid is made chiefly from the juice of the lemon. The juice is pressed from the fruit and then allowed to ferment. The fermentation aids in separating a mucilaginous mass and making it thus possible to obtain the citric acid in a purer condition. The action is probably similar to the maceration processes described above, al-though it has not as yet been studied by bacteriologists.

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