Microbes have inhabited our planet since the dawn of time. They helped create the life we all enjoy today and they will probably be around way after our time comes to an end. When they were first discovered they were often thought of in terms of the havoc and disease they could cause. Luis Pastor and Robert Koch really brought this to the publics attention 1800’s when their scientific rivalry helped bring multiple discoveries and advancements of microbiology to the forefront of the scientific community. These two are widely considered the originators of medical bacteriology and although they both worked from seemingly different backgrounds, Pastor a Professor and Koch a Doctor, their work during similar time cohesively gave us a new understanding of pathogen causation and how to fight or treat diseases developed from the various pathogens. They put these pathogens to work creating life saving vaccines. There work with microbes reached outside the medical community as well, most notably Pasteur’s discovery of pasteurization and also his work with fermentation which both have helped the food industry in one way or another.
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Since the time of Pasture and Koch we have advanced using their base work to put all sorts of microbes to work in various industries. We use microbes in the medical field, the food industry, and even to help eliminate waste we humans create in the form of sewage and composting. To understand how we are able to harness the power of the microbe we should first learn a little bit of general knowledge about microbes.
Microbe as defined in the dictionary are “microorganisms, especially a bacterium that causing disease or fermentation”, or more generally organisms that we are not able to see with the naked eye and need a microscope to view. There are three main types of microbes we like to look at, including bacterium, fungi, and viruses. These are the types microbes that we know can be pathogenic to humans. Pathogenicity can be fairly complicated but is mostly determined by the microbes structure and how strong the host is in its defense against the pathogen. Not all microbes are pathogenic to humans and some even live and contribute to a symbiotic relationship on and in our bodies. Since our bodies have a natural working relationship with these microbes we can only extrapolate how much work they can do for us outside the body.
One way we have harnessed the natural power of the microbe is by using them to help in sewage and water treatment plants. Sewage consists of water, debris, and organic material (excrement). In order for us to reuse what water we can from the sewage we must get it as particle free as possible. This means removing the debris and organic material to the best of our abilities. During and after a series of filtration steps to remove large debris and larger organic material we are left with liquid that is full of what is known as “suspended particles”. Although these particles have made it pretty far in the treatment process they still must be removed. These particles can contain organic material that is harmful to humans or the environment in which the treated water will be used. This is where the majority of our microbes used in water treatment come into play.
Specific microbes are added to an aeration tank where the liquid that is being treated is mixed with air. The microbes then use the air and suspended organic particles as food energy. They use this energy to reproduce creating more and more cleaning microbes. Biofilms can even form adding another level of filtration by increasing not only the number of microbes that can grow but also the efficiency of their respiration, which ultimately aids in the efficacy of the treatment process. Most pathogenic microbes die off at this stage as they are not good at using oxygen for energy or they are known to be anaerobic. That is why aerobic bacteria are favored in this step of the treatment process. There are nonpathogenic anaerobic bacteria can be used in the later stages and oxygen will not need to be added by aeration. The anaerobic bacteria also help filter out phosphorus as they use it for energy instead of oxygen. During all of the respiration, energy production, and proliferation of these microbes some gas is formed. This gas can then be harvested and used for fuel or energy production in various ways.
The treated water is tested several times before reintroduced into the environment. It is also tested along its path as to ensure it is on the right track to being clean enough for release. It is tested to make sure harmful microbes are not present. If there is a breakdown, a missed test, or some error occurs along the way the water can be released and still be contaminated with fecal mater which usually means pathogenic bacteria will still be present. If this water is released into to river or the sea it can proliferate and essentially take over an ecosystem. It can also contaminate potential food sources like fish. This can also happen when waste water is used to water farm land and is a major ground zero for food borne illness.
Food microbiology is the study of the microorganisms that inhabit, create, or contaminate food-causing food borne illness. There are a large group of pathogenic microbes that can be associated with food borne illness but the three most commonly mentioned microbes that can contaminate food, not in any particular order, are E. coli, salmonella, and norovirus.
E. Coli, which is naturally found in your intestinal tract, comes in many different varieties. Some will not make you sick at all and some when found outside of the intestines can cause lasting issues with organs like your livers or kidneys. This is the bacteria that is tested for and used as a guideline for waste water treatment. Since it is naturally in our bodies some does get expelled in our fecal mater. When it is reintroduced into the body via the stomach after consumption of contaminated product it can cause diarrhea with or without blood, vomiting, sever abdominal pain. Depending on the strain of E. coli the more serious HUS (hemolytic uremic syndrome) disease can emerge. This is the complication that can essentially destroy your kidneys. Symptoms include decreased urine output, dark urine, and pale skin face. Besides contaminated water E. coli can also be found in raw foods, undercooked beef, and unpasteurized dairy.
Another dangerous microbe that is mainly transmitted in food is salmonella. Unlike E. coli, salmonella will also cause a fever with the regular symptoms of diarrhea and vomiting. It is mainly found in poultry, eggs, and unpasteurized dairy.
Lastly, norovirus, or stomach flu, has similar signs and symptoms as the two previously mentioned bacteria. When it comes to diarrhea it usually does not include blood. Norovirus is actually more easily transmitted and does not need food as a fomite. This pathogen can remain on almost any object an infected person touches. When found in food it is usually produce or shellfish. Since it can be spread person to person it can also get into any prepackaged food an infected person may have contacted.
Preventing pathogenic bacteria in food comes down to proper preparation, cooking, storage, as well as cleanliness of all food preparation, cooking, and storage areas. Starting as far back as the soil or water used to grow crops, or feed live stalk, proper preparation is key. This is why water treatment is so important. If the environment in which our food is grown is contaminated chances are our food will be as well, even if we take all of the precautions in preparation, cooking, and storage. In the kitchen, whether at a restaurant or at home, hand washing can be an enormous deterrent to food borne illnesses.
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There are other steps in food preparation and preservation such as canning, fermenting, and pasteurizing that can help eliminate the spread of these harmful microbes. Canning can help preserve food for up to 5 years, and sometimes depending on the food being canned longer. The canning process involves sealing in food in an airtight container removing all oxygen. Other preservatives might be added to these foods to extend the shelf life like sugar or salt. In order to remove the oxygen and achieve the airtight seal heat is applied in the process.
Another form of food preparation and preservation involving heat is pasteurization. Luis Pasteur made the discovery that harmful microbes that spoil wine could be killed by applying heat to the wine, below its boiling point, for an extended period of time. This process was then used on other liquids like milk. It is most commonly used in dairy products and can kill common pathogenic bacteria such as listeria, salmonella, and E.coli.
Pasteur also credited with the founding of zymology, the study of fermentation. Although fermentation in human food consumption predates Pasteur by thousands of years, he connected yeast to the process. Fermentation is one food process in which we in list the help of microbes. Fermentation is the process of converting carbohydrates, in most case sugar, into alcohol or organic acid that help preserve. It is believed that fermented foods are super foods since they contain helpful bacteria in the form of probiotics. When most people think of fermented food they might think of beer, wine, or things like kimchi and sauerkraut, but really fermented foods are much more common. Yogurt, some cheese, pickled vegetables, most olives, vinegar, soy bean products like tofu, sourdough bread, kombucha, even some hot sauces all use the process of fermentation in their preparation.
Although fermented foods use a process that involves helpful microbes, like yeast, it is still pertinent to practice proper food preparation and universal standards to keep food as uncontaminated as possible from potential pathogenic bacteria. Some precautions you can take are cooking meat fully or to specific internal temperatures, washing hands and utensils thoroughly, keeping food properly refrigerated, and maintaining a clean food preparation area. Also just be aware when you are eating out of the condition of the restaurant. A good way to keep tabs on restaurants that follow all of the above precautions and may more is checking out their rating from the Food and Drug Administration.
The study of probiotics, like the ones found in our bodies and in fermented foods, and helpful microorganisms has been a huge topic in the medical world. In 2005 the American Medical Association held a colloquium on probiotics and how we can scientifically apply them to the human body to create healthier individuals. It was discussed that “interactions between a host and its commensal microorganisms, and the interplay between the commensal microorganisms themselves, can be critical to the health of a host. Proper development of the human immune system is reliant on microbial stimulation. Probiotic organisms may have the potential to interact with both the innate and acquired immune systems with possible benefits to the host”(Walker, Buckley 2006) so in this case us humans. Since the time of Pasteur and Koch we have been using microbes to create vaccines and antibiotics in the medical field. The continued use of microbes has helped us over come the peaks of antibiotic resistant pathogens and virtually eliminate some diseases.
Another advancement in medicine in which we have enlisted the help of microbes is gene therapy. Gene therapy is the idea that if we change the DNA of tumors in cancer patients we can have them produce certain proteins that actually help heal and fight the remaining malignant cells. Bacteria microbes are being used as vectors, or the source of delivery, of the new DNA to the cancer cells. “The first bacteria observed to have an effect on cancer cells belong to the Clostridium genus.”(Baban 2010).
With further advancements and microbe species being researched it is only fair to say we have just opened the tap for what these microbes can do. We have built open our scientific forefathers to unveil the great potential of these microscopic organisms and have opened a whole new world in the betterment of society. Whether it be in the food industry, making healthier foods, or fighting the spread of pathogenic microbes, to helping us recycle our water to better serve the planet, or the medical field microbes are here to help. We simply need to accept the offer.
- Baban, C. K., Cronin, M., O’Hanlon, D., O’Sullivan, G. C., & Tangney, M. (2010, December). Bacteria as vectors for gene therapy for cancer. Retrieved October 5, 2018, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3056088/
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- Walker, R., & Buckley, M. (2006, June 15). Probiotic Microbes: The Scientific Basis. Retrieved October 5, 2018, from http://www.asmscience.org/content/report/colloquia/colloquia.35?crawler=redirect&mimetype=application/pdf
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