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Brief Summary

Escherichia coli is one of the most well-known microbes in the world and the species includes diverse strains of bacteria. Most of these strains are harmless and occur widely in nature as well as in the gastrointestinal tracts of humans and other vertebrates. They help synthesize vitamins K and B complex and also assist in food digestion and absorption. However, other strains cause infections that can lead to serious consequences.

E. coli is also used as a model organism in scientific research and is very important in the development of modern molecular biology. Its fast growth rates and genetic simplicity (E. coli has only 4,400 genes compared to ~25,000 genes in human cells) has led to its widespread use in laboratories. Colonies are easy to start and maintain, and are even used to sustain another model organism, the roundworm Caenorhabditis elegans. Major discoveries in our understanding of bacterial physiology and genetics, DNA replication, and genetic engineering have been enabled by E. coli.

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© "What's in a Name?" Exhibit, Harvard Museum of Natural History. President and Fellows of Harvard College.

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