Bacillus subtilis, as with many in the Bacillus
genus, is an extremely common bacterium. It is
found in soil, water, air, and decomposing plant
matter. Bacteria in the Bacillus genus are
spore-forming, which means that they create a
thick wall which surrounds their DNA and other
internal cell structures. In this way, they are
very hardy and impervious to extreme
temperatures, chemicals, environmental factors,
even some types of radiation. This makes them
excellent for use in industrial processes.
Bacillus subtilis is widely used for laboratory
studies, but more for genetic research as
opposed to health research. The bacteria is
highly responsive to genetic mutation, giving it
a many experimental uses in a laboratory
Though Bacillus subtilis presents some risk to
humans, the instances of this are incredibly
rare. Part of the problem with its sometimes
shady reputation can actually be attributed to
other members of its genus. The Bacillus genus
encompasses a large number of species. At one
time all aerobic, spore-forming bacilli were
named part of the subtilis species. Many of the
species are closely related, making it very
difficult to tell them apart.
However, the disease-causing Bacillus species
are now easily distinguishable from the helpful
strains such as Bacillus subtilis. The subtilis
species is not to be confused with Bacillus
cereus, which is a common cause of food
poisoning, and Bacillus anthracis, which is
pathogenic to humans and other animals.
Bacillus subtilis is beneficial is many ways,
including industrial applications. It is used to
produce a variety of enzymes, including amylase,
which is helpful in the de-sizing of textiles
and starch modification for the sizing of paper.
Bacillus subtilis also produces the enzyme
protease, including subtilisin, which is used in
detergents and the leather industry.
Perhaps more notably, Bacillus subtilis is used
to produce many antibiotics, such as difficidin,
oxydifficidin, bacilli, bacillomyin B, and
Bacitracin, which is helpful in treating
bacterial skin infections and preventing
infection in minor cuts and burns.
Bacillus subtilis is also used as a fungicide.
The bacteria colonize the root system, leaving
no room for fungal disease organisms. It is used
on agricultural seeds of vegetables, soybeans,
cotton, and peanuts and on flower and ornamental
seeds. It is also being used to produce insect
toxins, including one to kill malarial mosquito
According to a Toxic Substances Control Act
report from the Environmental Protection Agency,
Bacillus subtilis “is considered a benign
organism as it does not possess traits that
cause disease. It is not considered pathogenic
or toxigenic to humans, animals, or plants. The
potential risk associated with the use of this
bacterium in fermentation facilities is low.”
A 2009 report published in the Journal of
Hepatology referenced a report by Swiss
researchers and showed a possible different
aspect of Bacillus subtilis. Liver injury
occurred to two patients after taking an
Herbalife product “contaminated” with Bacillus
subtilis. They concluded that because liver
damage resulted after use of the product,
Bacillus subtilis possesses “potential
Though the incidence of distress related to
Bacillus subtilis is quite low, perhaps the best
advice for its use comes from Gary Huffnagle, a
Ph.D. and author of The Probiotics Revolution.
Because of certain probiotic species’ similarity
to disease-causing strains, Huffnagle recommends
consulting a healthcare professional before
using supplements containing strains of E. coli,
Enterococcus faecium, and Bacillus subtilis.
European Bioinformatics Institute. (2009).
Bacteria Genomes – Bacillus subtilus.
Huffnagle, Ph.D., Gary and Wernick, Sarah. The
Probiotics Revolution. New York, NY:
Bantam Dell. (2007).
Stickel, Felix et al. (2009). Journal of
Hepatology. Severe Hepatoxicity Following
Ingestion of Herbalife Nutritional Supplements
Contaminated with Bacillus subtilis.
Taylor, John R. and Mitchell, Deborah. The
Wonder of Probiotics. New York, NY: St. Martin’s
Todar, Ph.D., Kenneth. (2009). Todar’s Online
Textbook of Bacteriology. The Genus Bacillus.
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. (2007).
Biotechnology Program Under Toxic
Substances Control Act (TSCA). Bacillus subtilis
Final Risk Assessment.
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