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  • Alex Cloherty

A love letter to microbes

As I edit this post, I'm sitting on the train on my way in to work in Amsterdam: a beautiful city of around a million people. And million is a lot - but did you know that there are about 100 million bacteria in just one teaspoon of soil?

Now, I love that fact, because I'm fascinated by microbes: from viruses to bacteria to fungi and more. And recently, I was asked, "Why?" What got me into microbiology? To be honest, it was equal parts the science and the human element that thrilled me. I'm fascinated with microbes not only because they outnumber us humans, but also because of how much microbes shape our lives - and the course of human history.

For example - if you're seeing this in the 2020s, you can definitely name at least one virus that impacted humans around the world. At the time of writing, SARS-CoV-2 continues to shape human movement, mental health, and media. Or if, like me, you have Irish ancestry, perhaps you can think of a fungus-like microbe that had an impact on your family. There would probably be far fewer Canadians with Irish blood, like myself, if not for the infamous potato famine caused by Phytophthora infestans.

But all that paints a rather grim picture of microbes. So to balance things out, today I want to share a short, enumerated love letter to microbes. Thanks little buddies, for all that you do for us.

1. Food! If you like beer, Swiss cheese, or chocolate, you've enjoyed a tasty treat that couldn't be produced without microbes. For your beer, you can thank yeast - a fungal microbe that eats up sugar and leaves behind alcohol. For both chocolate and Swiss cheese, bacteria are necessary to produce chemicals that underlie those delicious, deep flavours. In particular, you can thank Propionibacterium for making the carbon dioxide that builds up within Swiss cheese and leaves behind those characteristic holes.

2. Our health. We need little microbial buddies in our intestines to help us out with digestion and with fighting off "bad" bacteria that can make us ill. We need them so bad that there's an up-and-coming, microbe-based treatment for diseases like Crohn's and ulcerative colitis: fecal transplants! That means taking feces (yes, poop, which is chock full of microbes) from a healthy donor, and transplanting it into the sick patient. Fun fact: sometimes it's done via a nasogastric tube. Yeah, I also wondered about the smell, so I asked about it in a master class… And indeed the smell is one of the possible negative effects of treatment. But, the positive part is that it can help restore a healthy balance of bugs in the gut!

3. Biotechnology. Bacteria are extremely useful in the lab as 'factories' - 'bactories' if you will - for making large amounts of very small things. For example, diabetes used to be far more deadly, partially because we had to isolate the insulin needed to treat it from animal organs - meaning it was expensive, and in limited supply. But nowadays, we can make enough insulin to treat everybody - by getting E. coli, a bacterium, to make it for us.

This is only a brief overview of all the good in the world that microbes do. I've taken a human-centric view today, but it's good to remember that microbes also have bigger-picture roles, like forming the basis of food chains, and recycling nutrients in the environment.

In short, not only our human history, but our whole world simply wouldn't be the same without them.

Thanks, little buddies.

~ Alex

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