12.03.24 | The biosolutions bulletin

Microbes: Invisible life forces that hold the key to our future

Without microbes, there would have been no life as we know it on this planet. They are helping us humans live better lives. And they are the key to a sustainable future.

superhero

In the vast ecosystem of our planet, microbes operate as superheroes.

Ask anyone about the vital role of trees in the world. Without a doubt, they will tell you that trees are nature's oxygen factories.

Unfortunately, few know that nearly half of our planet's oxygen is produced by microbes – the tiny life forces thriving beyond our sight. Did you know about it before diving into this conversation?

Microbes do much more than just that. Without microbes, there would have been no life as we know it on this planet. They are helping us humans live better lives. And they are the key to a sustainable future.

Surprised? There’s much more in store!

 

Microbes, the superheroes of our planet

Not to sound dramatic, but microbes are like superheroes, doing good deeds at night. In the vast ecosystem of our planet, microbes operate as the silent guardians of our planet's well-being and covertly ensure the stability and sustainability of life itself.

While birds, animals, insects, and plants are celebrated for their role on planet Earth, like shadow operating superheroes, microbes are unseen and often underappreciated.

Why are they called microbes and microorganisms?

Here’s a more technical definition: microbes are organisms that we cannot see without the help of a microscope. Their size is calculated in units called ‘micrometre’ (denoted by the symbol μm). One micrometre is one-thousandth of a millimetre, and microbes measure generally less than 0.2μm.

With so much about these organisms involving the word ‘micro’, it shouldn’t surprise that they are called microbes or microorganisms.

Microbes can refer to various organisms, including bacteria, fungi, and micrometre-sized plants living in the oceans, known as phytoplanktons.

Microbes

Microbes run the world

For most of our lives, we do our best to protect ourselves from bacteria and fungi for fear of infections. And we must.

Yet, according to the National Research Council Committee on Metagenomics of the US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine,

Microbes run the world. It’s that simple. Although we can’t usually see them, microbes are essential for every part of human life—indeed all life on Earth


Can you imagine what would have happened if there were no microbes to decompose all the humans, plants, and animals that die daily?

Can you imagine a world without bread, beer, yogurt, or cheese – all made with fermentation by microbes like yeast, fungi or bacteria?

Without microbes to enrich the soil with essential nutrients, there would be no agriculture.

 

Fermentation in a nutshell

So, we’ve learned that microbes are the change agents responsible for fermentation. But what exactly is fermentation?

  • Well, it’s a biological process taking place in organic material when microbes consume and convert sugars into energy for themselves. In the process, they produce byproducts like gases, alcohol, or acids. Ever wondered where the holes in the cheese come from? That's because of these gases!
     
  • The byproducts created during fermentation are what make it interesting. From cheese to bread, yogurt and beer, the unique flavors and textures are often a result of fermentation. Moreover, it has been a traditional method of food preservation for centuries, even though our ancestors didn’t know about fermentation as such. They just knew that cheese kept longer than milk and wine longer than grapes.
     
  • Today we know what the transformative power of fermentation is all about – and the opportunities it holds for developing environmentally friendly practices and innovative products that contribute to a more sustainable and resilient future.

 

Here’s the biggest irony: Without microbes, there would be no antibiotics!

Pharmaceutical companies use microbes like fungi and bacteria to produce antibiotics that help us fight infections caused by dangerous microbes. The first antibiotic ever discovered, Penicillin, is extracted from a fungus called Penicillium.

A very large percentage of cells in our bodies are not even human cells. They are microbes. We have trillions of microbes living in us, including bacteria, fungi, and even viruses. These microbes help us live healthy lives, from helping in the digestion of food to fighting diseases caused by other harmful disease-causing microbes.

 

Microbes provide solutions

The role of microbes in sustaining life on Earth is not recent. It goes back more than three billion years ago when Earth was a boiling hot mess with no oxygen and was full of carbon dioxide. The only life in existence then were microbes called Cyanobacteria. These bacteria could consume carbon dioxide and produce oxygen.

The cyanobacteria kept consuming carbon dioxide and producing oxygen over billions of years. Over time, oxygen became a major part of the mix of gases in Earth’s atmosphere. Now 21% of the air we breathe is oxygen. This eventual rise in oxygen levels made Earth habitable, triggering the growth of life forms and the evolution of a wonderful mix of species.

Even now, microbes play a crucial role in fostering life on Earth


As humans pump billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide every year into the atmosphere, microbes in the ocean consume almost half of it to produce oxygen. That helps preventing the Earth from bursting into flames because of global warming.

Microbes hold a key to our future too. Climate change threatens our future, and various challenges lie ahead: antibiotic resistance, increasing carbon dioxide levels, food wastage, pollution caused by industrial activities, declining agricultural yields, and dependence on fossil fuels.

These are some of the many problems for which microbes provide effective biological, sustainable, and less resource-intensive solutions. We call them “biosolutions”.

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Biosolutions are essential for a sustainable future

So, at the heart of biosolutions is “bio”, meaning connected with life and living & things. It’s not really an invention, because it has always been there. Microbes, intelligently acting as change agents, opened up a window of opportunities for humans to manufacture various products through fermentation and extraction of enzymes.

Building on the inherent, transformational power of microbes, researchers started looking at various industrial applications, where this could be brought into play; where biosolutions could replace processes requiring hazardous chemicals or other unwanted additives.

Over the years, by copying, engineering and improving the power of biology, researchers have ensured that a rich variety of biosolutions already exists.

Here are some examples:

  • Textile and leather: Enzymes replaced harmful chemicals used in processes like stone-washing and tanning
  • Food and beverages: Bacteria provide optimal texture without texturizing additives, reduce fat levels and added sugar and ensure longer freshness and shelf life. Fermentation-produced enzymes in cheese production ensure higher yield (more out of less).
  • Beneficial microorganisms – called probiotics – help maintaining a balanced microbiota in humans and animals (microbiota being the collection of microorganisms that inhabit various parts of the body)
  • Energy: Usage of acid and alkali-based catalysts in biodiesel manufacturing declined as fermentation with microbial enzymes became the greener and more effective alternative
  • Paper and pulp: Dependence on bleaching chemicals reduced with the help of enzymes
  • Healthcare: Insulin extracted from pigs is replaced by insulin extracted through the fermentation of microbes


From their pivotal role in generating oxygen on Earth to their contributions to fermentation and the benefits involved, microbes are the unsung ‘superheroes’ quietly shaping our world.

Through the lens of biosolutions, microbial-driven innovations pave the way for a harmonious coexistence with our planet and unlock the possibilities for a more sustainable, resilient future.

Microbial Majority

Microbes constitute the majority of Earth's biodiversity.

Five fun facts about microbes

Microbial majority: Microbes constitute the majority of Earth's biodiversity, with estimates suggesting that they represent up to 80% of all living organisms. Even your own body contains 38 trillion bacteria!

Microbial communication networks: Microbes are expert communicators. They engage in complex signaling processes, often referred to as "quorum sensing," allowing them to coordinate activities in large groups. Bacteria can collectively make decisions based on population density, regulating behaviors such as biofilm formation or the release of toxins.

Microbial weather forecasters: Before a rainstorm, the distinctive smell we often associate with "fresh air" is actually a result of microbial activity. Actinobacteria release compounds into the air, especially just before rainfall, creating the pleasant aroma known as "petrichor." So, the next time you enjoy that post-rain scent, thank the microbes for the atmospheric symphony.

Microbial Artistry

Microbial artistry: Some microbes possess a creative side! Certain types of bacteria, like Serratia marcescens, produce pigments that create vibrant and colorful patterns. In fact, these microbial "paintings" were used by scientists as early as the 1920s to explore the movement of fluids in the human body.

Microbial moonwalkers: Microbes are true space travelers that ventured beyond our planet. Some bacteria have demonstrated the ability to survive in the vacuum of space. In experiments, they endured exposure to outer space conditions on spacecraft, challenging our understanding of life's resilience beyond Earth.

These peculiar and intriguing facts about microbes showcase the incredible diversity and capabilities of these tiny life forms, proving that there is much more to the microbial world than meets the eye.

 

 

This article is part of The biosolutions bulletin, issue #1. Read the other article of issue #1 here: The battle on food waste: Good vs bad microbes

What is a biosolution?

Microbes and enzymes are tiny but mighty agents of change. For billions of years, they’ve enabled transformation in all living things through microbiology.

What are biosolutions? Where do they come from?
How do they work? What would the world look like without them?


Get the answers to these questions and more from the monthly biosolutions bulletin. Whether you’re an expert who wants to keep on top of the latest innovations or just starting to learn about biosolutions, we’ve got you covered.

With stories ranging from the role of biosolutions in food security to how they enable NOMA-style dining experiences, there’s something for everyone.

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