Microbial Ecology: History & Importance

Instructor: Nicholas Pieri

Nicholas holds a BS in Geology and a master's degree in education. He has taught secondary Earth space science.

Microbial ecology aims to study how microbes live and interact with their environment. Though this branch of study is relatively new compared to others, it is immensely important to all life on Earth. Let's take a look at how this study came to be and just why it is so important.

Microbes are Everywhere!

We interact with microbial life every day. The average cell phone can harbor 25,000 microbes per square inch of its surface.

Cell Phone
Cell Phone

That's a lot of germs, but not all of these tiny creatures are harmful. In fact, many microbes are so crucial that life as we know it would cease to exist without them. While scientists have studied microbes and their medical significance since the advent of the microscope, researching how these microbes interact and influence the environment is a relatively new study known as microbial ecology.

History of Microbial Ecology

Microbial ecology focuses on life too small to be seen without the aid of a microscope including bacteria, viruses, and fungi. Studying these tiny organisms and how they interact with their environment has yielded incredible achievements across a variety of scientific disciplines and shed light on how important microbes are to the ecosystems they inhabit.

The history of microbial study begins with the Dutch scientist Anton van Leeuwenhoek. Widely recognized as the father of microscopy, he developed the first microscope with the ability to study bacteria and yeast.

Anton van Leeuwenhoek
Anton van Leeuwenhoek

Now able to view objects at 270x magnification, Anton van Leeuwenhoek discovered a previously unknown abundance of life. Can you imagine discovering an entire ecosystem existing within a drop of water? This discovery sent waves through the scientific community, spawning a new discipline of study.

As the field of microscopy progressed, most scientists focused on the biology of the microorganisms and their medical implications. However, near the end of the 19th century, scientists began to study the relationship between these organisms and their environment. One such pioneer was Sergei Winogradsky, a Russian born scientist who discovered the existence of lithotrophs. This diverse group of microorganisms use inorganic compounds such as iron or hydrogen gas to obtain energy. Winogradsky also discovered the first instance of chemosynthesis after observing microorganisms converting inorganic substances like hydrogen sulfide and carbon dioxide into organic compounds.

Sergei Winogradsky
Sergei Winogradsky

Thanks to the work of Sergei Winogradsky, scientists realized that microorganisms did not merely exist within ecosystems, but performed processes on which entire ecosystems were built. This revolutionary realization led to an explosion of research in microbial ecology, revealing the integral roles microbes play in various ecosystems.

Importance of Microbial Ecology

Just how important are these microscopic organisms and their relationship to the environment then? Without trying to overstate the matter, these guys are as crucial as the air we breathe. Without microbes in the environment, life on Earth may have never come into existence, and certainly not as we know it today. Microbes are responsible for cycling nutrients through the environment, creating important symbiotic relationships, providing energy in the absence of sunlight, and digesting the food we eat!

Recycling Nutrients

Microbes are essential to the biogeochemical cycles which permit sustainable life on Earth. In the carbon cycle, microbial life decomposes dead organisms to release the carbon stored within their bodies, returning it to the soil. Microscopic bacteria play an essential role in the nitrogen cycle, transforming nitrogen to various forms through nitrogen fixation, nitrification, ammonification, and denitrification.

Nitrogen Cycle
Nitrogen Cycle

Bacteria are also responsible for converting phosphorous between its organic and inorganic forms, allowing for the intake of phosphorous when needed by living things and the storage of phosphorous in the Earth. The sulfur cycle is another biogeochemical cycle which relies on bacteria for the conversion between its organic and inorganic forms.

Symbiotic Relationships

Microbial ecologists also focus on the symbiotic relationships microbes create. One of these relationships changed the Earth forever and paved the way for the existence of aerobic life. We all need oxygen to breathe, but oxygen did not exist in the Earth's atmosphere until the first photosynthetic bacteria began converting sunlight into energy and producing oxygen as a byproduct.


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