Most people associate Escherichia coli with food-poisoning scares. Just this month, for example, a frozen-food company recalled millions of pounds of food that could have been tainted with the bacteria.
But while one particularly harmful strain of E. coli has caused illness and even death in humans, the microbe is ubiquitous and mostly benign—plenty of E. coli lives in the gut and helps us to digest food. And scientists use it for all kinds of research.
Researchers value E. coli for its genetic simplicity (it has about 4400 genes, versus the 30,000 in a human cell), and fast growth rates. E. coli is so common that science now has a large base of knowledge about the microorganism from which to work. Here’s what this useful bacterium has been up to in recent years: