Discovering Microbes

Our world is teeming with microbes, those organisms so small that we can only see them with the aid of a microscope. They cover every surface around us and even live within and on our bodies. 

“In fact there are more microscopic species of life in a sugar packet’s worth of soil than there are species of animals in all the zoos in the world,” says microbiologist Dr. Anne Madden.

That thought might make your skin crawl (literally!) but take a moment to truly appreciate how those microbes have made our lives better and how they one day may be solving some of the planet’s toughest problems.

It has been estimated that there are over a trillion species of microbe covering our planet and that 90 per cent of them have yet to be discovered. For scientists like Madden it means enjoying an age of exploration very similar to the one naturalists would have experienced hundreds of years ago as new plants and animals were identified.

Microbes include fungi, bacteria, archaea and viruses and similar to those organisms we can see (plants and animals) our relationships can be different for each one.

“There are plants that we like to eat such as strawberries and corn and then there are plants that hurt us such as poison ivy,” says Madden. “Similarly, there are microbes out there that might give us a flu but there are also lots that make our lives so much better.”

Microbiologists study microbes to try to understand how they live, grow, have evolved and how they interact with their environments and others. And while microbes can look very different from each other the best way to identify them is through their DNA.

“As a microbe wrangler my favorite part of the research is growing microbes,” says Madden.  “Finding them in the world and then growing them separate from all other species so that you can understand the characteristics of that particular microbe.”

When a microbe is isolated it can be tested. Can it survive in a very cold environment? Does it eat particular sugars? Can it consume plastic?

From helping bread rise, to producing antibiotics and vaccines to helping us digest our food the list of things microbes help us with is endless. They also assist us by:

  • Producing renewable energy such as electricity or oil
  • Breaking down toxic chemicals or plastics that otherwise pollute the land and ocean
  • Helping plants and livestock grow healthier
  • Treating waste water so it is safer for the environment
  • Creating self-healing building material like cement
  • Mining minerals
  • Developing new materials to replace plastic, leather and cotton
  • Making new medicines to help treat and prevent disease

And microbes also present us with the opportunity to pursue one of the coolest careers!

“Engaging with microbes doesn’t have to happen in the lab,” says Madden. “Microbiologists explore all sorts of different microbes in all sorts of different spaces in the world. You can be a microbiologist that studies microbes that exist in the space station or you can be a microbiologist that studies the microbes that live in a tiny squid off the coast of Hawaii or you can be a microbiologist who studies those microbes that just make us sick. To be a microbiologist allows you to explore any habitat you can imagine.”

For more cool microbe information and activities visit Dr. Madden at The Microbe Institute.

Article originally published in Brainspace Magazine

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