Microorganisms – By: Dr. John Kyndt ( Head Scientist of the Renewable Energy Program at Advanced Energy Creations Lab) and Dr. Aecio D’Silva.
All of us have been plagued at some point in time with the little critters, whether it’s getting sick with a bacterial cold, hard-to-kill mold, or a pool covered with slimy algae scum. We generally refer to these as pests or germs of whatever bad name comes to mind. Are they Heroes or Villains?
We tend to forget that there are millions of microorganisms that are not harmful to us at all, but in a lot of cases are beneficial to our existence.
Think for example of gut bacteria such as E. coli present in humans and bacteria in the rumen of cows that are crucial to digestion.
In a broader sense, microorganisms like bacteria, yeast and algae have the capability to make carbohydrates, proteins, and lipids to high amounts with minimal inputs. Often all is needed is water, air and sunlight. Try surviving on just that with our human bodies.
The human genome is full of very efficient enzymes and traits that are tuned to break down these biomasses into biological energy, but we’re not equipped to perform these basic assimilatory tasks.
Over the years, scientists have found clever ways to take advantage of these critters and their superior capabilities. We are currently using fermentation with microorganisms on a large industrial scale for higher value chemicals and products: e.g. fermentation of hops into beers or corn mash into ethanol.
Not only are we using the naturally occurring organisms, in the last decade there have been an explosion of industrial use for genetically engineered organisms. We have recently posted articles on the history of genetic engineering and using GE for algal biofuel production. However the list of ongoing experiments and development of novel GMO’s is growing constantly.
Microorganisms – Social Microbes
What we can learn from microorganisms like algae is not only limited to the specific traits they have or what we can develop them to have. In the last couple of years there has been an increasing interest in how bacterial and algal communities can communicate.
Even though these organisms are all individual cells, they have developed clever ways to signal to each other, which in the end benefits the whole group. Scientists are interested in how these critters can collectively gather information about their environment and find an optimal path to growth.
The communication between organisms occurs through chemical and mechanical means. Most microorganisms are capable of “chemosensing” where they can detect certain chemicals in the environment and determine whether or not it is beneficial for growth to stay in that environment or to swarm away to a different area.
The interaction will increase when the cells find themselves in less favorable environments, which signals to the entire group to swarm to a new area.
Often these organisms are capable of forming so called “biofilms”, where the group as a whole can colonize a certain surface area. This provides a protective mechanism for the entire community.
If you find some resemblance in this to animal and human behavior, you’re not the only one. Scientists are now further analyzing such basic forms of communal behavior in the hopes that it can be applied to artificial intelligence and group behavior of robots.
Microorganisms – GE microbes: the cheapest labor for your business
No doubt that we can learn more from these little critters, both on a social and biochemical level. We will certainly continue to use these organisms in the coming decades for production of our everyday chemicals and pharmaceuticals. Especially with novel technologies that are designing more “tailor-made” synthetic genomes we are sure that many more microbial-based innovations are on the horizon.
Interesting is that when these organisms are being used in new and existing industrial processes, they are often at the core of the business model. We are depending on these tiny ‘production machines’, which are often fed only minimal inputs to reduce costs, worked until they are exhausted and then extracted for all their products. And they do it all without complaining or asking for a raise.
Next time you think about bugs you might be a bit more thankful.