Bacteria are unicellular microorganisms that have, despite their extremely small size, significant beneficial and harmful effects on humans. This scanning electron micrograph shows the bacteria known as Streptococcus pyogenes, which causes strep throat, a common illness in humans.
In my first weeks in grad school I have felt like a sponge, learning new things just about everywhere I go... from just about everyone I talk to. Part of this is due to the fact that I have signed up to study microbiology knowing just about nothing about that subject. I am more of a geologist by training. I really feel like the proverbial kid in a candy store though. The more I learn about microbes, and their study, the better I feel about my choice of subjects. It also helps that just the other evening I heard my #1 science idol Ed O. Wilson speak and he said that if he were starting out as a scientist now he would study microbes and microbial diversity! Woohoo!
Did you know that your body holds more microorganisms than your own cells? Did you know that crazy drug resistant staph infections killed more people in the US last year than the Aids virus did? Did you know that there are about 5,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 (that’s 50^30) microbes on the planet? Did you know that there is more carbon stored in microbes living deep under the sea floor than there is in all the plant and animal life on land? Did you know that you have an entire ecosystem within your intestines (probably about 500 species of microorganisms) that is key to keeping you healthy, and that we have only begun to investigate how that ecosystem functions, and that your internal ecosystem is very different from that of the person sitting next to you (unless that person is your sibling or mother, then it might be similar)? The vast majority of these species are unknown and many of the ones that we have seen we know virtually nothing about. Talk about drinking from a fire hose! (I know, I am just full of cliches tonight...sorry)
Microorganisms were the only living things on the planet for roughly 2.5 billion (thats 2,500 million) years. Animals have been around for .5 billion (500 million) years, while mammals appeared 220 million years ago. Human beings only showed up roughly 200,000 years ago! I think what gets me the most excited is how little we know about these organisms, other than that they are hugely important for the function of ecosystems (imagine all the trash and dead stuff if there weren’t decomposers!), the function or organisms, and for understanding the evolution of life on Earth. My task for the next 6 years or so... discover something awesome about these organisms... more specifically the ones that live in and around hydrothermal vents! I had better get to work.