Microbiology

Microbiology in the present-day scenario: Scope, relevance and opportunities

With the ongoing pandemic of COVID-19, caused by SARS-COV-2, a novel Coronavirus, it is easy to appreciate the relevance and scope of Microbiology more than ever. The origin of the virus is possibly linked to bats and other intermediate hosts. It is thought that the transmission of the virus might be animal to human (zoonotic) or human to human by respiratory droplets and microdroplets. This pandemic is spread in more than 200 countries and resulted in more than 30,000 deaths globally as of now. Human civilization has seen pandemic like this about 100 years ago during the 1918 Spanish Flu caused by H1N1 virus which resulted in more deaths than World War I itself.

If knowledge and training is required about viruses and other microbes including how they attach to cells, how they divide, how they cause disease, how they can benefit us and how they can be utilized for betterment of the world, then one might opt to study Microbiology. Microbiology is the study of microbes or life forms that are so small that require microscope for visualization. Apart from virus, other major microbes studied in Microbiology include bacteria, archaea, protozoa, fungi and algae. While few microbes can be harmful and even though some popular media refer microbes as germs, majority of microbes actually do more benefit than harm.

Microbiology is both a basic and applied science. As a basic science, studies on microbes under laboratory conditions have helped discovery of some of the fundamental processes and basic mechanisms in biology. As an applied science, Microbiology influences quality of human life in both detrimental and beneficial ways. Some microbes can cause infectious diseases. In the Indian context, Typhoid, Cholera, Malaria, Dengue, Tuberculosis and others have caused significant morbidity and mortality. However, with research and application of novel intervention strategies, many of these diseases and others can be controlled or managed effectively. Many microbes are used in industrial settings to produce food, beverage, antibiotics, vaccines and pharmaceuticals which improves quality of life significantly.

Microbes are extremely diverse and are present on air, land, water, ice, hot springs, sea, near volcano, seabed, marshlands and in many other extreme conditions. At a time when earth’s atmosphere was devoid of oxygen, microbes capable of making their own food by photosynthesis emerged. Later, cyanobacteria appeared and slowly filled up the earth’s atmosphere with oxygen and supported the evolution of higher animals including humans. In fact, cyanobacteria produce significant amount of oxygen in the atmosphere. It’s interesting to note that microbes are the only inhabitants that survived around 80% of the time since earth was formed. Microbes play an important role in nutrient recycling such as carbon, nitrogen, sulphur, etc. Fungus act feed on dead or decaying matter to recycle nutrients and break down organic compounds so that carbon, nitrogen and other minerals can be used by other organisms. Microbes are present all around us, on us and within us and again not all of them make us sick. Microbes are required for our own health and every other life form in this planet. For example, our healthy skin bacteria can prevent entry of harmful microbes by occupying skin surface. Similarly, presence of healthy microbes in our gut is essential to our health and well-being. A disruption in normal healthy microbes can not only lead to ailments or disease but it can affect our mood and whether we remain thin or obese.

Microbes are tiny factories that can be utilized for food and beverage production such as in beer and wine, bread, cheese, curd, yoghurt, tofu and many others. Microbes are utilized for enzyme production, wastewater treatment and even breaking down pollutants into harmless products. Botox treatment used for relaxing muscle utilizes a powerful neurotoxin called botulinum toxin from a bacterium, Clostridium botulinum. In case of Botox, the botulinum toxin is used in a very less concentration to relax muscles. Indeed, it is amazing that a toxin that is lethal can be life saver at a very low dose. Certain microbes found in the roots of certain plants are capable of nitrogen fixation which converts nitrogen to a usable form for plant growth. India being an agricultural country, the use of such nitrogen fixing bacteria to improve yield of crops is of tremendous importance. Soil bacteria and fungus are the source of many antibiotics. The effect of microbes on global climate change due to human activities can affect microbial biodiversity and the reverse response and adaptation of microbes to global climate change can impact sustainability as microbes are life support for this planet. Microbes can be harnessed for the production of biofuels which can reduce use of fossil fuels. Biofuels can supplement petroleum-based fuels and can include methane, ethanol and other products of microbial metabolisms. Microbes can be also be used in gene therapies and in biotechnology. For example, most of the Insulin is produced nowadays in bacterial or yeast systems. Similarly, the enzyme Taq polymerase isolated from a thermophilic or heat-loving bacterium Thermus aquaticus, is used in polymerase chain reaction, a technique for amplification of DNA or genes used almost in all fields of biology. In addition, bacterial cells can also be used as a vehicle to introduce specific genes to bring a particular characteristic or to produce a desired product in a commercial scale. Microbes have tremendous applications in industry and also play a major role in supporting all forms of life in this planet.

Indeed, choosing a career in Microbiology can be highly rewarding as it makes a difference to society, nation and the world around us. A microbiologist learns and explores the unseen world of microbes everyday much like an adventure and find answers to life’s big questions. For example, questions that a Microbiologist ask: What makes people sick? What can keep people healthy? How do vaccines and antibiotics work in combating infectious diseases? How do microbes affect sustainability? It’s important for students to remain updated in terms of scientific literature and get suitable training in various techniques related to Microbiology. Microbiology students need to be curious and asks questions as questions can lead to discovery and innovations. In fact, most microbiologists and anyone interested in microbiology would be appreciative of the microscopic view of tiny, invisible life in a drop of pond water or a pinch of soil. In order to study Microbiology, students need not have a strong foundation in Mathematics.

Many job or career opportunities exist in various sectors and in different levels for Microbiology students.

Job/Career opportunities exist in the following sectors –

a. Food Microbiology
b. Clinical and Medical Microbiology
c. Industrial Microbiology
d. Veterinary Microbiology
e. Environmental Microbiology
f. Agricultural Microbiology
g. Biotechnology
h. Genomics and Bioinformatics
i. Pharmaceutical Technology

Job/Career opportunities exist in the following positions/levels –

a. Research Assistant
b. Research Scientist
c. Technician
d. Faculty
e. Teaching Assistant
f. Scientific writer
g. Quality Control/Assurance Officer
h. Laboratory Manager
i. Technical writer
j. Patent Officer
k. Grant Manager
l. Entrepreneur

In the present scenario, around the world, the race is on for search of a vaccine or antivirals that could combat the deadly disease of COVID-19. The current pandemic is one of the defining periods in history that again necessitated the need for novel vaccine or antiviral drugs that can save lives and keep people healthy. The ongoing pandemic is much like a pre-antibiotic/vaccine era when lack of antibiotics/vaccines have killed thousands around the globe. However, with the emergence of antibiotics and vaccines, both of which significantly reduced human mortality and human life space increased almost two-fold since early 20th century. Vaccines save lives and mass vaccination have resulted in drastic reduction in mortality caused due to small pox, measles, etc. India was declared Polio free in 2014 because of mass vaccination and awareness campaign of oral polio vaccine. Importantly, India is one of the largest producers of vaccines in the world. Both vaccines and antibiotics can be derived from microbes. While vaccine is a weakened microorganism or part of a microorganism that stimulates our own immune response, antibiotics are released as secondary metabolites from microbes to fight other microbes. Antibiotics would not work against viruses as they target bacteria. However, vaccines and or antiviral drug/s can be used to target virus. Development of any drug or vaccine requires clinical trials and extensive evaluation of efficacy and safety in animals and human volunteers takes place for a prolonged period of time before a dug or vaccine is approved. A drug or vaccine will be most likely available in the near future to combat deadly infectious diseases. However, it is important to remember, new microbial diseases can and will emerge now and then and hence there will be a constant need to develop novel vaccines and therapeutic strategies to combat infectious diseases in a speedy manner. To do so, one would require a degree and training in Microbiology.

Perhaps, the only thing that is more contagious than a virus is hope and working in the field of Microbiology can bring that hope to the world. Pursuing Microbiology is truly an experience of a lifetime and it matters now more than ever.

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