From boiling thermal hot springs to deep beneath the Antarctic ice, microorganisms can be found almost everywhere on earth in great quantities. Microorganisms (or microbes, as they are also called) are small organisms. Most are so small that they cannot be seen without a microscope.
Most microorganisms are harmless to humans and, in fact, many are helpful. They play fundamental roles in ecosystems everywhere on earth, forming the backbone of many food webs. People use them to make biofuels, medicines, and even foods. Without microbes, there would be no bread, cheese, or beer. Our bodies are filled with microbes, and our skin alone is home to trillions of them1. Some of them we can’t live without; others cause diseases that can make us sick or even kill us.
Although much more is known today about microbial life than ever before, the vast majority of this invisible world remains unexplored. Microbiologists continue to identify new ways that microbes benefit and threaten humans.
- 1.1: What Our Ancestors Knew
- Microorganisms (or microbes) are living organisms that are generally too small to be seen without a microscope. Throughout history, humans have used microbes to make fermented foods such as beer, bread, cheese, and wine. Long before the invention of the microscope, some people theorized that infection and disease were spread by living things that were too small to be seen. They also correctly intuited certain principles regarding the spread of disease and immunity.
- 1.2: A Systematic Approach
- Carolus Linnaeus developed a taxonomic system for categorizing organisms into related groups. Binomial nomenclature assigns organisms Latinized scientific names with a genus and species designation. A phylogenetic tree is a way of showing how different organisms are thought to be related to one another from an evolutionary standpoint. The first phylogenetic tree contained kingdoms for plants and animals; Ernst Haeckel proposed adding a kingdom for protists.
- 1.3: Types of Microorganisms
- Microorganisms are very diverse and are found in all three domains of life: Archaea, Bacteria, and Eukarya. Archaea and bacteria are classified as prokaryotes because they lack a cellular nucleus. Archaea differ from bacteria in evolutionary history, genetics, metabolic pathways, and cell wall and membrane composition. Archaea inhabit nearly every environment on earth, but no archaea have been identified as human pathogens.
- 1 J. Hulcr et al. “A Jungle in There: Bacteria in Belly Buttons are Highly Diverse, but Predictable.” PLoS ONE 7 no. 11 (2012): e47712. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0047712.
Thumbnail: A cluster of Escherichia coli bacteria magnified 10,000 times. (Public Domain; Eric Erbe, digital colorization by Christopher Pooley, both of USDA, ARS, EMU).