The Yin-Yang of Microbes
Unlike a common refrain from the 1960's, "If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem," microbes both cause and provide solutions to many of our world's biggest problems. This is not surprising to microbiologists, who are aware of the tremendous genetic, metabolic and ecological diversity of microbes that allows them to live virtually anywhere in nature, including in humans, animals, plants and inhospitable environments.
Responding rapidly to microbial challenges and opportunities relies on basic and applied research done long before the needs arise. This research requires a continual influx of trained scientists working in academia, industry and clinical labs, expensive equipment and reagents, and — as noted by Katherine Heitz in this issue of Microcosm — appropriate biosafety conditions to protect the researchers, community and environment. Most microbiology research is financed by government funding, requiring awareness and support from the public and policymakers.
The public typically learns about microbes from the media. Despite their broad impact on human lives, from medicine, public health, agriculture, the environment, economic development and many things in between, news about microbes is often focused on exotic or esoteric stories like diseases that affect distant countries or the number of bacteria on shower curtains. Hence, although microbes often make splashy headlines, they are quickly forgotten as the news cycle moves on to other issues.
In contrast, the COVID-19 pandemic has been front-page news for several months now, as the public wants to understand questions like: Where did it come from? Why weren't we prepared? Why does it take so long to develop new anti-viral therapeutics and vaccines? What is the probability that my family will be infected? And, how long will it last?
The article by Stephen Ornes provides useful perspectives on the COVID-19 pandemic, although our understanding of the disease continues to evolve as we learn more on a daily basis. The challenges of implementing effective and appropriate responses to this pandemic emphasize why it is critical for the public and politicians to understand how science works, why evidence-based decisions require thoroughly testing hypotheses and where to find trustworthy expertise.
Once the COVID-19 pandemic has subsided, many people will focus on other things and forget the importance of microbiology in all of our lives. We need to be prepared for the next pandemic, with an understanding that the initial outbreak could happen anywhere in the world and be quickly transmitted around the globe.
Sometimes people have a narrow focus on human disease, seemingly forgetting that microbes influence plants and animals as well, and that human health depends upon agriculture for food. This is nicely emphasized in Julie Wolf's article on bananas.
However, it is critical that people understand that many microbes are beneficial. Microbes can influence CO2 sequestration, thereby tilting the balance of climate change. Microbes influence health and disease resistance in the rhizosphere, the microbiome of farm animals, and the human microbiome. Microbes produce foods, vitamins and therapeutics. Microbes degrade our waste products and generate energy.
Both thwarting problematic microbes and harnessing microbial solutions requires continuing support for research and education. ASM's communications and advocacy play an invaluable role in engaging the public and policymakers about these issues, but we all need to do our part to inform the public and policymakers about why microbes matter, the importance of evidence-based research and the need for an educated workforce.
Stanley Maloy, Ph.D.
Editor in Chief