There are some things humans do better than bacteria. We, generally, are better at writing novels and constructing screenplays. That said some individuals are only marginally better at communicating their needs to others. Some bacteria communicate quite effectively chemically, while some people may not have such a record for clarity.
There is one area bacteria, such as E. coli and Bacillus subtilis, indisputably have us beat and that is in metabolism. These organisms can take a few simple salts, a carbon source (sugar), and just a few trace metals on the glass wear and readily grow. You or I … not so much. Though I’m sure if you carbonate that mixture and ad caffeine it would probably make a simply disgusting energy drink. You could market it as “Basal Media: It’s got what bacteria crave.”
I think it’s important to emphasize how poorly we do this type of thing. Spend months at sea with no fresh fruit and you a liable to come down with a rather nasty case of scurvy. While the issues with teeth and gums often make it into pop culture, scurvy used to regularly kill large numbers of crew members starting in the 1500’s. The cause of this was not fully appreciated until well into the 1800s, though there does seem to be some appreciation of the fact that diet was an important contributing factor. E. coli, while not altogether rejecting a diet of freshly bruised apples, doesn’t need them to survive.
Why require anything other than just an input of energy, a supply of the basic elements required for life and let the cell try to make all the other factors it needs in-house? It’s not a crazy idea. Wrong … absolutely wrong, but a reasonable idea if you don’t have any evidence to the contrary. In the early 1800s the french physiologist François Magendie proposed that gelatin could be used to feed the poor. Gelatin is prepared by boiling bones, skin and connective tissue in acid to extract what is essentially collagen. You might know gelatin as a vehicle for sugar and food coloring, commonly referred to as Jell-o ,but it can be used to suspend just about anything (with the exception of pineapple).
Magendie thought that the wealthy could eat meat while the poor could consume gelatin made of bones and animal trimmings. Needless to say the malnourished masses were not exactly thrilled with this idea, but this being 19th century France, the powers that be decided to establish the aptly titled “Gelatin Commision.” It tried a series of experiments for ten years and ultimately found gelatin really didn’t provide everything that many animals needed to survive. Ironically, despite this setback, Magendie is probably only the second most unpopular proponent of gelatin based products.
By the later half of the 19th century scientists interested in nutritional questions, had worked out that many animals required fats, carbohydrates (e.g. starch, sugars), proteins and some collection of minerals (kind of like the salts needed for our bacteria to grow). That seemed like it should be sufficient for energy and the elements that chemists knew living things were composed of. All of this laid the groundwork for Sir Francis Gowland Hopkins, simply the most british scientist in existence, to conduct his seminal experiments published in 1916, showing that rats could not survive on an artificial diets stripped of most everything except the 4 essential macronutrients known of at the time.
These experiments showed that certain “accessory factors” must exist in food that are required for growth. Hopkins’ term “accessory factor” never really caught on though. Around this same period a Polish biochemist by the name of Casimir Funk was studying a disease called Beriberi, which causes neurological and/or cardiac problems. Funk was interested in the fact that patients who consumed brown rice seemed to recover from the condition while those subsisting on a diet of white rice didn’t. Funk spent his time separating out the various chemicals in rice polishings until he found one fraction that seemed to help pigeons exhibiting similar symptoms to Berberi. It seemed to work even when administered in very small quantities. This fraction tested positive for a chemical group known as an amine. Funk decided to call this compound “vitamine” combining the latin prefix “vita” meaning life with “amine” to denote the presence of this one chemical group. He later discussed in his book The Vitamines that there existed a group of “deficiency disorders” and speculated that other such vitamines might exist. At that point the term stuck more generally, though it is a great personal disappointment to me that he did not try to name such compounds after himself. He could have called them Funky factors. Vitamine was ultimately renamed thiamine which you may have read if you are passionate reader of the sides of cereal boxes (Ooohhh 100% of my value of thiamine … I guess no Beriberi for me today).
Now I think it’s important to point out that these factors have generally only been shown to be necessary for survival and growth in very small quantities. In many cases there is really just no evidence that loading up on vitamins really helps much of anything. It’s kind of like trying to add extra spark plugs to a single car to get it to go faster. At some point you’ve met your minimum requirement and the extra just end up rolling around in your glove box waiting to be used.
This work really kicked of the study of vitamins and spawned a string of Nobel Prize winning work. Which is more than most bacteria can say (No bacterium has ever won a Nobel prize). Granted they make their own stuff in house, so they have us there. That said, I still like to think people are happier to have me show up to dinner than they are to meet and greet E. coli.