10 Great Uses for Microbiology

By Jennifer Stearns, Michael Surette

There are many professions where knowing about microbes, either pathogenic or benign, is handy. There are also plenty of situations where applying a microbiology approach to a problem will get you out of a jam. Some are industries that employ microbiologists, and others are situations where a knowledge of microbiology is essential to getting the job done.

Medical care: keeping people healthy

One of the places where microbiology is essential is in the healthcare industry. Here are just some of the healthcare professionals who think critically about microbes every day:

  • Nurses and doctors

  • Pharmacists

  • Clinical microbiologists

  • Obstetricians and midwives

  • Public health officials

Dental care: keeping those pearly whites shining bright

The dentist’s office is a place where smiles get polished and nagging toothaches get attended to. But a big part of dentistry is knowing about the microorganisms that live in the mouth. The oral cavity has the most microbial diversity of any site in the human body, with several hundred species of bacteria alone.

Veterinary care: helping Fido and Fluffy to feel their best

As doctors with special knowledge about many different types of animals, veterinarians keep pets, livestock, and even wild animals healthy. The types of microbiology used in veterinary medicine are much like those used in human medicine — the pathogens just have different names.

When pets get sick with mystery illnesses, vets use some fundamental microbiology to figure out if a microbe is the cause. This includes microscopy and Gram staining of body fluids and stool, as well as culturing swabs.

Monitoring the environment

National environmental monitoring programs, like the U.S. Geological Survey, use microbiology, both to impact environmental conservation and for basic research reasons. Examples of such activities include the following:

  • Monitoring the impacts of climate change on microbial populations

  • Conserving wildlife

  • Studying the interaction of microorganisms and their environments

  • Recording and publishing water quality data

  • Studying how microorganisms interact with nonliving parts of the environment

  • Combining all of the above activities to measure overall ecosystem functioning

Making plants happy

Farmers, horticulturalists, and gardeners use microbiology every day to keep plants protected from plant pathogens. A slew of microorganisms make a living from infecting plant tissues, and it’s sometimes hard to stay ahead of them. Plants infected with microbial pathogens are less healthy, often have unsightly blemishes, and can succumb quickly despite treatment.

Prevention is the best medicine, especially because many pathogens get inside of plant tissues, making it hard to get rid of them before losing the plants.

Keeping fish swimming strong

The fishing industry works together with wildlife protection agencies to make sure that captive and wild fish populations are healthy and free of disease. To do this, a number of different microbial pathogens and hazards have to be considered:

  • A huge part of the fishing industry involves keeping fish farms free of microbial pathogens. Farmed fish are particularly vulnerable to disease, and countries that share an ocean notify one another when they have a nasty fish virus or bacterial pathogen within their fish farms.

  • Bacterial, viral and fungal fish pathogens are also a major problem for natural lake populations of fish. It’s important to collect data on fish pathogens in wild fish populations in national parks to make sure that fish stocking of streams upstream aren’t impacting wild fish populations.

  • Large-scale deaths in young fish can happen because of ingestion of toxin-producing cyanobacteria. Invertebrates consume the bacteria and are, in turn, food for fish. The more invertebrates a fish eats, the more toxin it gets as well.

  • Invasive fish species can impact local fish populations in a negative way, by preying on them, as well as competing for food and habitats. Another negative impact of invasive species is that they bring with them pathogens that native fish have no immunity against.

  • Zoonotic diseases that can pass from one species to another.

  • Some bacteria can cause vitamin B1 deficiency in trout eggs leading to death in early stages of life.

Producing food, wine, and beer

Although bacteria and yeast are used extensively in the food industry to ferment a number of food products, microbiology is also used to keep food manufacturing processes safe from microorganisms that will either foul the products or make people sick.

Clever ways to keep microbes off of surfaces in the food processing industry have been developed that include inhibiting bacterial biofilms in order to stop bacteria like Listeria from growing on food-processing equipment.

Science hacking

Twitter is awash with the hashtag #ScienceHack calling all amateur scientists, or rather all science enthusiasts not affiliated with a university, to participate in events aimed at making an impact on research and medicine.

Looking for microbes in clean rooms

Clean rooms are used in manufacturing and special research centers where limiting all sources of contamination from dust and microorganisms is important. In these rooms, the incoming air is filtered, people are covered completely to avoid bringing in contaminants from outside, and all material going into the rooms is carefully cleaned and/or sterilized.

Surfaces are cleaned with harsh chemicals that are thought to eliminate all living microorganisms, and people monitor the area frequently to look for live microbes that may have slipped through the cracks.

Producing pharmaceuticals

Secondary metabolism is the term used to describe any nonessential products made by an organism. Many times these are waste products that are excreted from the cell, but other times these products have an important activity on live cells and so are called bioactive and can be excreted or stored within the cell. Bioactive properties of secondary metabolites include the following:

  • Attracting or repelling other organisms.

  • Killing or halting the growth of bacteria. Antibiotics are the most well-known group in this class.

  • Toxicity to eukaryotic cells, including chemotherapeutic drugs used to kill cancerous cells.

Many other functions exist and the spectrum of activities is still largely unknown.