Microbes rule the world. To think otherwise would be foolish, yet the majority of humans think that humans are the apex organisms. Our anthropocentric perspectives and behaviors, especially in the context of misunderstanding or lack of understanding of the microbial contribution to Earth’s hospitality to humans, result in many of the existential challenges we now face, e.g. Global Warming and Climate Change; increased occurrence and virulence of zoonotic diseases; and soil degradation. Life on Earth without microbes would not be pleasant, especially for life forms such as humans, and we still have no clue of the extent of our ignorance of the importance of microbes to our existence. Here are five facts that should educate the reader about the importance of microbes, i.e. microscopic organisms that cannot be seen with the naked eye.
- Microalgae, not trees, are the lungs of the planet. Microscopic, photosynthetic, single celled organisms such as microalgae and cyanobacteria, produce over 50 percent of the daily oxygen on Earth. Some estimates go as high as 80 percent. Forget about the lungs of the planet being the rainforests; the true lungs of the Earth are the microalgae and cyanobacteria in the oceans and soils and freshwater. In fact, one species of cyanobacterium, named Prochloroccus, is responsible for 20 percent of the oxygen produced daily-and we only discovered them in 1988. Although rainforests are incredibly important ecosystems, Prochlorococcus by itself outproduces all tropical rainforests. Next time you take a breath, thank algae. Microalgae are also the most efficient absorbers of carbon dioxide on the planet and represent a viable mechanism in the fight against Climate Change.
- The first “agricultural” revolution was by microbes. The first oxygenic photosynthesizers (performing photosynthesis with oxygen as the byproduct) around 2.7 billion years ago were cyanobacteria, i.e. they used the energy from sunlight to split carbon dioxide and water and recombine the atoms into the glucose molecule with oxygen as a waste product. There are other organisms that do anoxygenic photosynthesis, i.e. they use hydrogen sulfide instead of water and produce elemental sulfur instead of oxygen as the waste product but these are negligible compared to oxygen-producing photosynthesizers. These microscopic organisms that transformed the sun’s energy into a chemical energy molecule, glucose, which became the primary source of energy for all other non-photosynthetic organisms represent the first agricultural revolution on Earth.
- We are not 100% human. By numbers of cells in the human body, human cells are matched or even outnumbered by non-human cells. Research has shown that the ratio of bacterial to human cells in the average human body to be 1.3 to 1, i.e., for every human cell, there are 1.3 bacterial cells. Humans are covered in microbes such as bacteria, viruses, fungi, and archaea, and they live inside us as well, especially in our gut (colon). To give an easy reference, the average human body has 30 trillion human cells and 39 trillion non-human cells, or we are only about 43% human. Science is lagging in understanding the roles played by our non-human components; however, we now know that our microbiome plays roles in “digestion, regulating the immune system, protecting against disease and manufacturing vital vitamins … the microbiome is also being linked to diseases including inflammatory bowel disease, Parkinson’s, whether cancer drugs work and even depression and autism” (Gallagher, 2018). We can safely say that our quality of life would be greatly diminished without these microbes.
- Healthy soils are full of microbial life. A teaspoon of healthy soil can have as many microbes in it as there are people on Earth. Soil comprises living and non-living components. Without the living components, i.e. algae, bacteria, actinomycetes, fungi, earthworms, nematodes, insects, etc. you have dirt, not soil. One of the major problems we have is that we really don’t know much about the functions of the soil microbiome, or that the ecosystem within soil is as complex as the ecosystems above soils, perhaps even more so. Soil quality is a function of physical and chemical attributes of the soil; soil health is a function of the microbiological activity in the soil. Without the living component of soil you could have the best quality soil in the world but it won’t be healthy soil and it won’t produce the quantity or quality of food that healthy soil will produce. Agricultural systems would collapse if not for the microbes in soils.
- The majority of microbes are beneficial to humans. Humans focus on the organisms they can see. We have a macroscopic outlook on life, rarely ever giving much thought to the microscopic activities without which our world would be much less hospitable. From decomposition to biogeochemical cycles, to recycling nutrients, microbes perform critical functions in keeping Earth hospitable to humans. As noted before, “Microorganisms have several vital roles in ecosystems: decomposition, oxygen production, evolution, and symbiotic relationships” (Ecological Role of Microorganisms, 2017). However, we pay far more attention to pathogenic (disease causing) microbes than we do to beneficial microbes. In fact, we often apply broad spectrum anti-microbials that kill microbes indiscriminately, i.e. both good and bad microbes, often to our detriment. We may even be destroying populations of good microbes, whose beneficial effects we only notice when they are absent. We have witnessed over the past few decades the rise of antimicrobial resistant strains of microbes, or so-called “superbugs”; the World Health Organization recognizes “the misuse and overuse of antimicrobials” as a driver of antimicrobial resistance. In our battle against pathogenic microbes we must be mindful of the idiom, “don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.”
Author: David Ramjohn
Title: CEO of AlgEternal Technologies, LLC
Date: February, 2020