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Biology LibreTexts

1.1.1 Defining Microbes

Microbes are organisms that are microscopic, or extremely small.


Explain the roles of microorganisms in ecosystems and biotechnology.


Key Points

  • While most microbes are unicellular, some multicellular animals and plants are also microscopic and are therefore broadly defined as “microbes.”
  • Microbes serve many functions in almost any ecosystem on Earth, including decomposition and nitrogen fixation.
  • Many microbes are either pathogens or parasitic organisms, both of which can harm humans.

Key Terms

  • symbiote: An organism in a partnership with another, such that each profits from the other.
  • pathogenic: Able to cause a harmful disease.
  • ecosystem: The interconnectedness of plants, animals, and microbes, not only with each other but also with their environment.

What Are Microbes?

A microbe, or microorganism, is a microscopic organism that comprises either a single cell (unicellular); cell clusters; or multicellular, relatively complex organisms.

The study of microorganisms is called microbiology, a subject that began with Anton van Leeuwenhoek’s discovery of microorganisms in 1675, using a microscope of his own design.


A Drawing of Microbes: This is a drawing of what Arthur Hill Hassall saw under a microscope in a sample of water taken from the River Thames at two locations. Hassall was able to identify many microscopic organisms not perceptible to the unaided eye,.

Microorganisms are very diverse; they include bacteria, fungi, algae, and protozoa; microscopic plants (green algae); and animals such as rotifers and planarians. Some microbiologists also include viruses, but others consider these as nonliving. Most microorganisms are unicellular, but this is not universal, since some multicellular organisms are microscopic. Some unicellular protists and bacteria, like Thiomargarita namibiensis, are macroscopic and visible to the naked eye.

Microorganisms live in all parts of the biosphere where there is liquid water, including soil, hot springs, on the ocean floor, high in the atmosphere, and deep inside rocks within the Earth’s crust. Most importantly, these organisms are vital to humans and the environment, as they participate in the Earth’s element cycles, such as the carbon cycle and the nitrogen cycle.

Microorganisms also fulfill other vital roles in virtually all ecosystems, such as recycling other organisms’ dead remains and waste products through decomposition. Microbes have an important place in most higher-order multicellular organisms as symbionts, and they are also exploited by people in biotechnology, both in traditional food and beverage preparation, and in modern technologies based on genetic engineering. Pathogenic microbes are harmful, however, since they invade and grow within other organisms, causing diseases that kill humans, animals, and plants.

The Pathogenic Ecology of Microbes

Although many microorganisms are beneficial, many others are the cause of infectious diseases. The organisms involved include pathogenic bacteria, which cause diseases such as plague, tuberculosis, and anthrax. Biofilms —microbial communities that are very difficult to destroy—are considered responsible for diseases like bacterial infections in patients with cystic fibrosis, Legionnaires’ disease, and otitis media (middle ear infection). They produce dental plaque; colonize catheters, prostheses, transcutaneous, and orthopedic devices; and infect contact lenses, open wounds, and burned tissue.

Biofilms also produce foodborne diseases because they colonize the surfaces of food and food-processing equipment. Biofilms are a large threat because they are resistant to most of the methods used to control microbial growth. Moreover, the excessive use of antibiotics has resulted in a major global problem since resistant forms of bacteria have been selected over time. A very dangerous strain, methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), has wreaked havoc recently.

In addition, protozoans are known to cause diseases such as malaria, sleeping sickness, and toxoplasmosis, while fungi can cause diseases such as ringworm, candidiasis, or histoplasmosis. Other diseases such as influenza, yellow fever, and AIDS are caused by viruses.

Food-borne diseases result from the consumption of contaminated food, pathogenic bacteria, viruses, or parasites that contaminate food. ” Hygiene ” is the avoidance of infection or food spoiling by eliminating microorganisms from the surroundings. As microorganisms (bacteria, in particular) are found virtually everywhere, the levels of harmful microorganisms can be reduced to acceptable levels with proper hygiene techniques. In some cases, however, it is required that an object or substance be completely sterile (i.e., devoid of all living entities and viruses). A good example of this is a hypodermic needle.