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How would you convince a friend that microorganisms are more than just disease causing agents?
Microorganisms are microscopic organisms which are too small to be seen by naked eyes. Their definition can be predicted from their names "micro" meaning very tiny or small and "organism" meaning a living creature. This name was derived from a Greek word. Microorganisms are renowned because of their ability to cause disease i.e. they are pathogen. One of the things about microorganisms is that there are billions and billions of them. They are everywhere in our surrounding, there are around 5*1030 microbes in earth. Even within ourselves, our human body alone possess billions of microorganisms (6*1023). Microorganism includes bacteria, fungi, virus, archaea and protists. Virus are considered to be microbes by some people whereas other people don't because they consider it as a non living. Microorganisms can be single celled or multi cellular but generally most of the microorganisms are single celled. Microorganisms live everywhere from mountains, water to human guts.
We need microscope to view microorganisms as they are too small to be seen with naked eyes. Single celled microorganisms are considered to be first evolved in this world. First microorganism was discovered by Anton van Leeuwenhoek using a microscope of his own design. Microbes have a property of carrying diseases. Microorganism causes many different types of disease. Although only minority of microbes cause disease in humans, plants and animals millions of people have died due to it, this was especially true during old days. During 13th century Black Death event occurred. About 100 million people were killed during this period because of the microorganism, Yersinia pestis. This reduced a significant number of population of the whole world. And since then these kinds of events had been occurring till the 19th century when the scientists figured out the cause. The first disease that was discovered caused by microbe was Anthrax which is very lethal. Some of the other diseases caused by microbes are flu, common cold, cholera, tuberculosis, chicken pox, common pox, HIV, measles etc. So, we can see how dangerous and pathogenic microbes can be. They can cause these serious diseases and could even be fatal. So we have to prevent ourselves from this kind of microorganisms.
However despite some of their pathogenic nature, all of the microbes are not entirely harmful. Only 10% to 30% of microbes cause disease to humans, animals and plants. They are more than just a disease carrying agents, there are around billions of microbes in the whole worlds and surely all of them can't be harmful. In fact, microorganisms are of great benefit to humans. Microorganisms can be very useful.
One of the sectors where microbes play an important role is in pharmaceutical sector. They are extensively used in producing vaccines and medicines. They are generally used in the field of genetics, biotechnology, molecular biology and biochemistry. Scientist carry out hundreds and thousands of experiments on them to find out the actual mechanisms by how they cause disease and create an antibiotic or medicine for that disease. This is particularly very helpful as they are so tiny and there are millions of them. We can use them as much as we want and any how we want. They are harnessed in producing different medicines and steroids. Some of the important drugs produced with use of microorganisms are Human Growth Hormone, erythropoietin, and other fertility drugs. And they can be manufactured cheaply. So, microbes play a critical role in creating medicine and saving the lives of thousands of people all around the globe. Scientists are even considering using the microbes as a cell fuel from algae. Microorganisms are used in bio gas reactors to produce gas like methane and ethanol by the process of fermentation. This way we can reduce the pollution in environment. This will greatly reduce the problem of global warming which has been such a great trouble in today's world. Microbes are not only playing an important role for our generation but also for the future generations.
Microorganisms are used is fermentation. Microorganisms play big role in production of beer, wine and other drinks. Without these microorganism these production would not have been possible. Or any other way to do it would have been lot more expensive. We all know how important drinks are in our social life and how profits are earned by companies through selling these drinks. So we can see the decisive role microorganisms play in our social life. Although, it is not the only use of microbes, they are also used in food making processes. They are also used in production of dairy products such as cheese and yogurt. Lactobacillus acidophilus is used in the production of cheese. So microorganisms has also some affect on the food we eat. Cheese is one of the major food in the world and microbes play a role in producing them. Microorganisms are also used in the process known as bioaugmentation. It is a process where the microbes are used to treat a contaminated soil or water. Microbes are also used to purify water, this is kind of ironic as microbes are used to prevent microbes. From this we can see that not all of the microorganisms are harmful. There only few species of microorganisms that are actually harmful, other can be very beneficial.
People always had to live with the diseases caused by the microorganisms. With that respect, we would want to get rid of all microorganisms in our body. But, having said that, there are still some microorganisms that we must have inside our body. In human gut alone, there are about 1012 microorganisms. They make up the human flora. And some of these microorganisms have mutualistic relationships with humans, i.e. they do something which is beneficial to us and in return they are able to survive in our gut. These gut bacteria usually synthesize vitamins for example, vitamin K. One of the classic examples where a microorganism is must required by animals is in cattle. Cattle (herbivore) cannot break down cellulose in plant cell, hence they have bacteria in their gut which breaks down cellulose for them carries out digestion. In return, microorganism is able to live inside the gut. This is a very good example where microorganism plays a vital role in a living organism.
Other aspect where the microorganism plays a very important role is in our environment. Carbon and nitrogen cycle are critical in terms of our ecology. They affect various affects of our eco system. They can virtually affect every single living organisms in the environment. Microorganisms play an important role in carbon and nitrogen level in our environment. They control the level of carbon fixation and nitrogen fixation that takes place in environment. Microbes living on the root of plants like Rhizobium and cyanobacteria fix nitrogen (fig2). So microorganism plays a very crucial role in this aspect of the environment. Even when organisms die, microorganisms turn them into manure which makes soil more fertile. They act as a decomposer of the environment. We all know decomposers are an important part of the ecosystem and energy flow. They are the ultimate energy takers that release energy back to the environment. So microbes are also important part of ecosystem along with the plants and animals. Decomposer (microorganisms) promotes the plant growth and helps in afforestation. This way they are helping the farmers for better agriculture. So indirectly, microorganisms are also helping in to create a better environment.
Economically, microorganisms have proved to be very convenient. One of the characteristics of microbes is that it can grow and reproduce very fast. This property has been properly utilised by the humans. For example, insulin is a hormone which reduces the blood sugar level. The person who has diabetics cannot produce that hormone therefore he/she needs to be given insulin regularly to survive. Now, insulin is produces by the islets of langerhan cells in pancreas. So we can only get insulin from human. But what scientists have done is that, we have isolated the gene that codes for production of insulin and put it inside the bacteria (microorganism). And successful expression of gene will allow the production of insulin. This way we can produce a large amount of insulin by using millions of microorganism. This is economically very useful as it makes insulin very cheap. Hence, people who come from poor family don't have to worry about the hospital medical fees. This way a microorganism plays a significant role in people's life.
Similarly, another economic use of microorganisms is using the enzymes produced by the microbes. There are three kinds of microorganisms thermophile, mesophiles and neutrophiles. Thermophiles are the microbes which can survive at extreme hot temperature and mesophiles can survive at extreme cold temperature. Mesophiles are the intermediates and they survive under moderate temperature. Scientists isolate these enzymes and put them in the laundry detergent to work under the hot water. Just like this there are different extreme microbes which can survive under extreme ph level and other extreme conditions. So scientists can isolate their enzymes for similar purposes. DNA fingerprinting which is such an important advanced technology uses the enzymes produced by the bacteria. DNA fingerprinting has made crime almost impossible. This has greatly solved the murder and other various police cases. So microorganisms have somehow managed to play an important role in reducing the number of crimes in society. Another way how bacteria has played important role in economy is by reducing the use of expensive insecticides and pesticides. Bacillus thuringensis is a bacteria that is lethal to the insects. So these microbes are used instead of the expensive insecticides for the promotion of plant production. This way it saves a huge amount of money by avoiding the expensive insecticides. So microorganisms has done nothing but contributed in bringing a positive economy in the field of current economics.
Hence, there are many different advantages of microorganisms. It is not just a single benefit that microorganisms have given. People consider them to be just a harmful microorganism but they are more than just a diseases carrying pathogen. They can have numerous benefits. From the process of fermentation to producing insulin, from playing such a critical role in our ecosystem to contributing in DNA fingerprinting, microorganisms have proved to play an important role in this world. Yes, it can cause lethal diseases but that can also be prevented. Nevertheless, microorganism set aside its pathogenic ability, due to its unique and idiosyncratic attributes has contributed significantly to humans. They are not just a disease causing agent, they are the smallest organisms in this world whose actions keep everything going on in this earth.
- Wheelis, M., 2007. Genetics Analysis and Principles. Sudbury: Jones and Bartlett Publishers