In recent years, the world has witnessed a significant rise in its understanding, as well as the impacts and roles of microbes in human welfare. From the advancement of research in the field of microbiology to fatal pandemics like COVID, microbes have constantly been in the news. This has led some to say that the microbes have “dominated” the recent years.
What are Microbes?
Microbes, also known as microorganisms, are tiny living organisms that are found all around us. They are present in water, soil, air, and even within bodies of humans and animals. For example, millions of microbes are present in the gut system of the human body.
Let’s, now, talk about some key areas of microbial dominance in recent years.
Recent Advancements in Microbial Research
In order to make use of microbes in human welfare, the scientific community has made some significant advances in microbial research. Some of the major achievements in this direction include:
- Metagenomics: Metagenomics has emerged as a revolutionary field of genomics in recent years. This new method of genome sequencing has started a new era of exploration in microbial biology. As a field that transcends the boundaries of traditional genomics, Metagenomics allows scientists to delve into the genetic intricacies of microbial communities in their natural living environment.
- CRISPR-Cas Technology: The revolutionary CRISPR-Cas technology has enabled precise and efficient genome editing in microbes. This, in turn, has facilitated a deeper study of microbes and the development of beneficial microbes.
- Human Microbiome Research: While developing effective strategies to prevent and treat novel diseases, the scientific community has achieved some breakthroughs in human microbiome research. Some of such major developments in this direction include the advancements in Single Cell Analysis, the development of the Pan-Microbiome Concept, the development of next-generation prebiotics and probiotics, etc.
- Integration of Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning: Advanced technologies like AI and ML are being used to analyze large-scale microbial data. This has accelerated the discovery of novel microbes and their potential applications.
- Public Awareness: Initiatives like Citizen Science Projects and educational campaigns are helping increase public awareness of the microbial world.
The Negative Impacts of Microbes
- Rising Antibiotic Resistance: The rise in antibiotic-resistant bacteria is becoming a major public health concern. Irrational use of antibiotics has meant that even common bacteria have developed the ability to evade the drugs designed to kill them. As a result, even simple infections are becoming potentially life-threatening. As per the WHO, globally, there are 4.95 million deaths per year associated with antimicrobial resistance (AMR).
- Infectious Diseases: The recent years have witnessed a rise in infectious diseases. The recent outbreaks of diseases like COVID-19, MERS, Zika, and Ebola have kept the world worrying about the risk of zoonotic diseases spreading from animals to people. At the same time, some old diseases like malaria, and tuberculosis are resurfacing due to factors like antibiotic resistance, vaccine hesitancy, and weak healthcare systems.
- Plant Pathogens: Crop losses due to various plant diseases caused by microbes have been threatening food security around the world. Olive Leaf Spot (OLS) in Italy, Citrus Greening Disease (CGD) in the United States, Xylella fastidiosa (Xf) in Europe, and Banana Xanthomonas Wilt (BXW) in Africa can be cited as some recent examples of plant disease outbreaks across the world.
- Water Contamination: Water contamination caused by microbes has also been rising as a serious public health concern. Millions of people worldwide, drinking water contaminated by these tiny organisms, are facing the threat of a range of waterborne diseases. Apart from causing severe strain on the public health system, they are also causing significant economic losses.
- Industrial Losses: Even the industries are not unaffected by microbes. Loss of production capacity and compromised quality due to degradation of industrial processes caused by microbes has kept the manufacturing sector worried. This is of particular concern for industries like food processing and pharmaceuticals.
The Positive Impacts of Microbes
Despite some negative impacts, their various positive impacts mean that the role of microbes in human welfare is very important. Some of the positive impacts of microbes can be seen as follows:
- Sustaining Life: Microbes play an important role in biogeochemical cycles, which makes available key elements needed to sustain life in biologically accessible forms. Some of such key elements are – Oxygen, Nitrogen, Sulfur, etc.
- Protecting Human Health: The vast microbial population present in the human gut contributes to digestion, nutrient absorption, and overall gut health. The recent advancements in terms of probiotics and prebiotics are further promoting the role of microbes in promoting gut health.
- Medicinal Benefits: Microbes have been a great source of deriving antibiotics, crucial for treating infections and saving lives. Of late, microbes are being explored for the development of other materials of therapeutic value. For example, insulin produced using genetically modified bacteria has revolutionized the treatment of diabetes.
- Agricultural Benefits: Nitrogen-fixing bacteria, present in soils, convert atmospheric nitrogen into a form that plants can use, thus enhancing soil fertility and reducing the need for synthetic fertilizers. The role of such soil bacteria is being explored for promoting plant growth by improving nutrient availability as well as for enhancing plant resilience against pathogens.
- Industrial Benefits: Microbes, including bacteria and yeast, are employed in various industrial processes. Their role in the food processing industry, the production of biofuels, etc is very important.
- Tackling Climate Change: Microbes are becoming an important tool for climate change mitigation and adaptation. Researchers have found certain bacteria, which are capable of consuming Methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Research is on to explore how soil microbes can contribute to carbon sequestration.
- Waste Management: There has been increased focus on using microbes for waste management through processes such as composting, bioremediation, etc. Of late, the role of microbes in wastewater treatment and management is also getting prominent.
It is evident that microbes have a significant impact on various fields of human concern. It is for this reason that microbes have grabbed significant research attention from humans in recent years. This attention is expected to shape the future of human-microbes interactions along with exploiting the role of microbes in human welfare.