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Decomposition is the process that breaks down dead organic material into simpler forms of matter, which are ultimately consumed by different types of bacteria and fungi. The action is essential for the dead matter to be managed. Colonies of bacteria begin the process of decomposition shortly after the death of an organic life form, be it plant, animal or human. Bacteria is even useful in the degradation of oil spills.
Decomposition of Humans and Animals
Decomposition literally begins at the moment of death. It begins with autolysis, the breakdown of the body by its own internal chemicals, enzymes and bacteria that live in the body, usually in the digestive tract. Humans and animals are not decomposed only by bacteria and fungi. The body is also decomposed by outside influences, such as temperature, insects and worms. Flesh flies and blow flies lay their eggs inside the body of a decaying animal. The eggs become maggots, which also do their part to break down the body. Saprotrophic (decomposing) bacteria are either aerobic (air breathing) or anaerobic (non-air breathing) to initiate decomposition.
Soil offers a wide variety of bacterial colonies that seek out and decompose dead plant material, such as leaves. There is a mixture of bacteria, fungi and microbes that break down and compost the dead plant material. In fact, there are too many types to count, but some of the well known and identified bacteria that help with the breakdown of plant material are Streptomyces, Penicillum, Bacillus and Aspergillus. All of these species play a vital part in the breakdown of leaves and other dead plant life. They are the reason when raking leaves it is often noticed a leaf has been "skeletonized."
Food that is forgotten in the refrigerator undergoes decomposition the same as leaves on the ground. While a refrigerator slows down the process, food still continues to degrade and decompose. Bacteria such as Penicillum, Bacillus thuringiensis and Bacillus play a large part in the decomposition of food, as do fungi. Working together, the partners are called saprophytes. The bacteria invade food such as fruit, through an opening in the skin. From there, more bacteria set up housekeeping, remaining until the food item has entirely broken down. Fungi activity is obvious when present in a forgotten container of food. It is also obvious when food has gone rancid and the decomposition process has made it inedible.
Decomposition of Oil
Certain bacterial colonies have been helpful in facilitating the cleanup and degradation of oil spills that occur in the ocean. Pseudomonas, a genetically engineered bacterium, has become known as one of the "oil-eating bacteria." Used to assist cleaning up the oil spill from the Exxon Valdez in 1989, it has been used several times since. Another bacterium that contributes to the decomposition of oil is Alcanivorax borkumensis, a marine bacterium that depends on oil to live. It is almost undetectable in uncontaminated water, but when the water becomes oily the bacterium aggressively begins to attack and break down the oil immediately.