Micro-organisms are of interest, in part, because some varieties cause disease. However, micro-organisms exist in all habitats and are an important component of all normal ecosystems. Soil and the oceans are the most important habitats. Soil supports a wide range of types and, as it is a very stable habitat, protects them for months or years. Micro-organisms decompose organic matter (plant and animal remains, sewage, etc) to simple molecules that can be used by plants, and oxidize or reduce insoluble elements (eg, sulphur) to soluble compounds also usable as plant food. Even pesticides and petroleum products will be broken down to less dangerous forms.
The oceans are low in nutrients and over 80% of ocean water is below 4°C; hence the microbial population and rate of growth and metabolism are very low. However, ocean bacteria can grow, albeit slowly, at these temperatures. These bacteria require sodium as a nutrient and some (called barophiles) require great pressures.
Marine micro-organisms function like terrestrial ones in decomposing organic matter and converting it to forms available to aquatic plants. For example, a relatively small number of petroleum-decomposing bacteria occur in the oceans, limited by the low level of nutrients. When an oil spill provides an abundant carbon source, the bacterial population increases immediately, provided that enough nitrogen and phosphorus are also present. In the long run, substances that cannot be handled by micro-organisms (eg, heavy metals, some pesticides, thermal pollution) will become the most serious POLLUTION problems. In addition, phytoplankton (photosynthetic algae and some protozoa) form critical links in ocean food chains.
On the negative side, the many disease-causing micro-organisms are undesirable in themselves. Furthermore, micro-organisms cause disease in plants, and constant effort is required to breed disease-resistant (eg, rust-resistant) varieties, especially as the fungi that cause rusts and many other PLANT DISEASES continually evolve new ways of attacking plants. Micro-organisms contribute to pollution by oxidizing organic matter, thus using up available oxygen and causing the death of fish and other oxygen-requiring organisms.
Bacteria can cause problems in water systems by oxidizing iron or manganese to insoluble salts that clog pipes. Some bacteria, in the absence of oxygen, will reduce sulphate to hydrogen sulphide, a weak acid that corrodes metal pipes. Crude oil is often very high in sulphur, and bacteria capable of oxidizing sulphur to sulphuric acid are present in oil wells. The acid formed destroys drilling bits and shafts.
The dairy industry has a long history of work with micro-organisms. Pasteurization of milk was introduced soon after 1886 to kill pathogenic bacteria and generally reduce bacterial numbers, thereby increasing the keeping quality of milk.
Brewing also uses yeast to convert sugar to alcohol. In this case, the source of sugar is cereal grain and the yeast does not have to be tolerant of high levels of alcohol. Bottled or canned beer is pasteurized in the container to prevent bacterial attack; keg beer is not pasteurized but relies on refrigeration and rapid use for its desirable qualities. Distilleries use yeast fermentation of grains, molasses, fruits and vegetables to obtain alcohol which is then distilled from the mash, aged and blended.
One of the major industrial uses of micro-organisms is in the production of antibiotics. Penicillin, the first to be discovered, is still the most widely used. Antibiotics act by interfering with the normal metabolic processes of bacteria or other micro-organisms. Thus, penicillin interferes with the synthesis of the cell wall of prokaryotic cells. This cell wall is totally unlike the wall in any eukaryote; hence, penicillin is selective for bacteria and blue-green algae. Over 100 antibiotics are now in use and more than 5000 different types have been produced. In general, the useful antibiotics are produced by fungi and by a special group of bacteria known as the Streptomyces.
To an ever-increasing degree, micro-organisms are being used to produce industrial enzymes (complex proteins that catalyze specific reactions). Bacteria, especially, are capable of secreting enzymes from their cells, thus making it much simpler to concentrate and purify the enzyme. The greatest industrial use of enzymes is in the chill proofing of beer; ie, in making the proteins and carbohydrates soluble so that they do not precipitate when the beer is chilled. Microbial enzymes are also used to remove the bitter constituents of grapefruit peel in juice production and to convert glucose (corn sugar) to the much sweeter sugar fructose. The enzyme rennin, used to coagulate milk for cheese making, is now largely obtained from fungi. Single-cell proteins, used primarily for animal feed, are produced using micro-organisms.
Micro-organisms are also used in such industrial processes as the synthesis of methane from cellulose (eg, from PULP AND PAPER INDUSTRY wastes); the process is still largely experimental (see BIOMASS ENERGY). Bacteria may be used to dissolve metals from ores, a procedure widely practised in the Canadian MINING industry.
Soils are often deficient in nitrogen and, although nitrogen-fixing strains of bacteria are present in soil, they may not occur in high enough numbers to be effective. To safeguard against this possibility, the seeds of legumes (eg, clover, peas, beans) are often preinoculated with the appropriate nitrogen-fixing bacteria. As the seeds germinate and plants grow, the bacteria (genus Rhizobium) invade the roots and concentrate in nodules on them. The plant supplies energy from the sun and the bacteria convert nitrogen to ammonia to feed the plant and enrich the soil. There is also some advantage to inoculating nitrogen-poor soils with free-living nitrogen-fixing bacteria of the genus Azotobacter. Micro-organisms have also been used to control insect pests that attack plants (eg, spruce budworm and sawflies).
In BIOTECHNOLOGY, a field now attracting a great deal of attention, characteristics from several strains of organisms are combined into a single cell, usually a bacterium. The basic techniques are those of microbial genetics. The production of compounds (eg, INSULIN, interferon) by bacteria is already underway, and the potential for the production of important biological compounds is very great.
Microbiology in Canada
Microbiology is a strong science in Canadian universities. In many instances, it is centred in medical schools, but there are successful departments in faculties of science or agriculture. The NATIONAL RESEARCH COUNCIL, Agriculture Canada and the Dept of Fisheries and Oceans have a long tradition of research in microbiology. Microbiology is more widely accepted as a profession than are other biological sciences. There are all levels of employment for graduates in hospitals, public health laboratories and private diagnostic laboratories. Within the food and beverage industries, dairying is the chief employer, although breweries, wineries and meat-packing plants routinely employ microbiologists for quality control work. The training is also considered appropriate for a brewmaster or wine maker.
In many industries, a microbiology background is considered an excellent preparation for a management position. Universities are one of the largest employers of the most highly trained individuals (in research and teaching) and of those with a BSc degree (eg, laboratory demonstrators, research assistants). The pharmaceutical industry employs graduates either in sales or in their research or quality control laboratories.
In Canada, microbiologists may belong to the professional associations: Canadian Society of Microbiologists, Canadian Assn of Medical Microbiologists, Canadian Assn of Clinical Microbiology and Infectious Diseases, Canadian Genetics Society, Canadian Society for Cell Biology, Canadian Biochemical Society, Canadian Society of Immunology, Canadian Assn of Public Health, Canadian Society of Clinical Chemists and the Canadian College of Microbiologists.
Author J.J.R. CAMPBELL
Links to Other Sites
Rosie Redfield: Critical enquirer
A profile of UBC microbiologist Rosie Redfield, whose "quest to replicate 'arsenic life' led to a remarkable experiment in open science." Proclaimed as one of "Ten people who mattered this year" in 2011 by the science journal "Nature".
Click on the names of Nobel Laureates for biographies, interviews, speeches, and more. From the Nobel Foundation, home of the Nobel Prizes.
The website for Health Canada. This section contains an overview of Health Canada and provides you points of entry to many Health Canada-specific related topics.
Canadian Bacterial Disease Network
The Canadian Bacterial Surveillance Network monitors the prevalence, mechanisms and epidemiology of antibiotic resistance in Canada.
Dr. Brett Finlay
A profile of acclaimed Canadian scientist Dr. Brett Finlay. From the Michael Smith Laboratories at UBC.
A bilingual glossary of key terms related to biology and biotechnology. From the website for the Canadian Biotechnology Secretariat.
West Nile Virus
Find out how to minimizing your risk of contracting West Nile Virus. From the Health Canada website.
Canadians for Health Research
The website for Canadians for Health Research provides the latest news and information about programs that promote science and health research initiatives in Canada.
The fightflu.ca website provides one-stop access to online information and resources about influenza (flu). From the Government of Canada in collaboration with provincial and territorial governments.
Tuberculosis: 2. History of the disease in Canada
A history of the incidence and treatment of tuberculosis in Canada. From the Canadian Medical Association Journal. A PDF file.
INDEPTH: Biological Weapons
This CBC Backgrounder website examines Canada’s high-tech virology lab in Winnipeg. Features a biowar dictionary and timeline, news stories about infectious diseases and more.
Worldwide coverage of the latest science news from the highly acclaimed science journal "Nature."
Canadian Science Policy Centre
The latest news and information about Canada's science sector.
All the latest news for the scientific community, including daily news from ScienceNOW and weekly news from Science magazine.
Canadian Bioethics Society
The website for the Canadian Bioethics Society, an organization concerned with ethical issues relating to human life and health, biology, and the environment. Click on "Bioethics Community" to access their blog and other online resources.
The website for Sanofi Pasteur, the vaccines division of sanofi-aventis Group. In the upper menu, click on "Sanofi Pasteur in Canada" for a brief history of Connaught Laboratories and a profile of founder Dr. John G. FitzGerald.
Public Health Agency of Canada
Check this site for the latest news about current health issues. Covers chronic disease prevention, public health emergencies, infectious disease outbreaks, and other topics related to health hazards.
Glossary: Veterinary Medicine
A glossary of terms related to veterinary medicine. From Washington State University's College of Veterinary Medicine.
Centre for Prions and Protein Folding Diseases
This site offers brief descriptions of neurodegenerative disorders such as BSE (Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy,“mad cow”), scrapie, Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD), and Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD).
This glossary was developed to help you understand the terms used in the field of biotechnology. From the website for Health Canada.
Canadian Biodiversity Information Facility
A searchable information source about biological species such as plants, animals, and fungi found in Canada. A Government of Canada website.
This digital online database features images of many unicellular and multicelluar species. Includes pictures of human cells, tissues, and organs. A University of Ottawa website.
The website of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research. Check out their latest scientific research projects in their online publications "Reach" and "Scope."
Student Science & Tech
Science comes alive at this site which features interactive microscopes, fantastic photos, a colourful periodic table, and much more. Check out the amazing stories about Canada's leading scientists. From the National Research Council Canada.
Internation Centre for Infectious Diseases
The website for ICID, an organization committed to innovative research and development programs related to biosafety and biosecurity.
Do Bugs Need Drugs?
Do Bugs Need Drugs? is a community education program that addresses the problem of antibiotic resistance. Guidelines for managing respiratory tract infections, including colds, flu, sore throat, cough, ear aches, sinus infections, chest colds (bronchitis) and pneumonia can be found in the Parent and the Healthcare Professional sections.
Methicillin Resistant Staphylococcus aureus
An information pamphlet about Methicillin Resistant Staphylococcus aureus. From the website for the Northern Antibiotic Resistance Partnership.
What is Listeria?
A fact sheet about Listeria bacteria and Listeriosis. Covers causes, symptoms, risk factors, and related public health issues. A Government of Ontario website.
Glossary: Meat Processing Regulation and Inspection
A glossary of terms related to regulation and inspection of meat processing operations. From the Ministry of the Attorney General, Province of Ontario.
Image Gallery: Listeria monocytogenes
Microscopic images of Listeria monocytogenes bacteria. From the website for National Research Council Canada.
Canadian Socieity for Ecology and Evolution
Scroll down the page and check out the links to ecology and evolution outreach projects across Canada.
A brief profile of Carl Linnaeus and the binomial naming system he devised for living organisms. From the website for the Linnean Society of London in the UK.
Let's Talk Science
Let's Talk Science offers interactive learning programs and resources for teachers and their students.
Creation of genes in lab raises hopes, concerns
A brief news story that addresses ethical concerns related to the development of the first cell that contains only synthetic genetic material. From the SFGATE.com website.