Microbiology in our daily life [Archives:2005/865/Health]

August 4 2005

By Lita Mathews
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Microbiology is a branch of biology that deals with the study of micro-organisms and their exploitation. Around us there are invisible forms of life, which we call “germs”, they are in the air, in the soil, in the water we drink and even in the food we eat. Many of them are harmless or even beneficial to man, but others may cause disease. The normal flora on the skin, in the mouth and intestinal gut perform useful functions, such as helping to decompose food.

These primitive forms of life include bacteria, algae, fungi (moulds and mushrooms) and viruses. The few diseases that have caused much discussion and fear are polio, plague, SARS, AIDS and tuberculosis. Some of the worst diseases like small pox, anthrax, etc are gradually eliminated from the face of the earth. Thanks to the vaccines that have come to our help to wipe out the menace of dreadful diseases such as polio. Research and advanced studies are being done to develop vaccines against HIV, the common cold and even against those facial pimples that give a nightmare for teenagers.

Not all of these tiny living beings end up in giving us trouble; a few of them play a vital role in our industries and pharmaceuticals. Genetic manipulations in different bacteria and other organisms have already opened tremendous possibilities in the manufacture of biologically important products such as insulin and heparin, in the field of fermentation, in the processing and disposal of sewages, etc. Algal cells are immensely rich in proteins, antioxidants like beta-carotene and omega-3 fatty acids and hence they are mass cultured to provide food supplements. The genetic constitution of those microbes that thrive in extreme conditions shall enable us to design plants, which could be cultivated in polar regions or deserts to feed the growing population in the coming future.

Ever wondered how it would be like with no micro-organisms to decompose the dead matter around us? This is nature's way of keeping the surroundings clean. They are also used to clear oil spills in the ocean, which would otherwise be a threat for the marine life and to neutralize industrial effluents. Attempts are being made to cultivate organisms that can degrade non-degradable compounds. The presence and distribution of diverse micro-organisms in air, soil or water of a particular region would tell us the fertility of that soil or the availability of any other resources. A symbiotic relationship between algae and fungi called as lichens serve as the best indicators of environmental pollution. Some bacteria produce toxins lethal to crop pests, replacing chemical pesticides for biopesticides in agriculture.

Want to get rid of those old-age wrinkles from your beautiful face? Go for Botox injections. This wonderful drug is derived from botulin toxin produced by the bacterium Clostridium botulinum, which causes food poisoning called botulism. Most of the cosmetics contain alpha hydroxy acids, UV ray absorbents and antioxidants obtained as a result of microbial action. When microbes feed upon anything, they give out a lot of by-products like acids, alcohols and gases. This is the concept behind a biogas plant. As the feed changes, so does the product; which makes it possible to yield by-products like hormones, enzymes, vitamins, etc. Most of the antibiotics are obtained from bacteria and fungi (e.g. streptomycin from Streptomyces bacteria, penicillin from Penicillium fungus).

The application of biological ideas in favour of economically valuable products has led to Biotechnology. Many other branches of life sciences like Biochemistry, Genetics, Physiology and Molecular Biology go hand in hand with Microbiology. For every positive side, man has always looked for its negative impact. Misuse of micro-organisms as bioweapons is perilous. Utilization of these amazing creatures through the right methods shall bring new hope of health and safety for mankind.