How Do Humans Use Microbes?

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What are Microbes?

A microbe or microorganism exists in single-celled form or in a colony of cells. Thousands of species of microbes are present in all parts of our body that make up the diverse human microbiome. These are helpful in maintaining and supporting our health, however, if the microbiome is disturbed in some way, certain ailments can be arised such as cardiovascular diseases, autoimmune disorders and cancer. 

A question arises- How Do Humans Use Microbes? It is known that microbes are important in health and human culture in a variety of ways. From fermenting foods to treating sewage, from producing fuel and enzymes to other bioactive compounds, microbes have been very helpful in all. Being used as essential tools in biology, microbes are model organisms that have been put to use in bioterrorism and biological warfare. Subjects of Life Sciences such as Biotechnology and Microbiology have been able to spread the importance of microbes for various experimentation and trials. As discussed earlier, microbes make up the human microbiota with the essential gut flora. On the other hand, the pathogens are also responsible for infectious diseases and are often the target of hygiene measures.

Use of Microbes by Humans

Let’s explore more about the use of microbes for humans in varied domains. Following are some of the points that can help us understand in a better manner.

  1. Production of Food

Fermentation process makes use of microorganisms or microbes to produce yoghurt, curd, cheese, ayran and other kinds of food. Providing flavour and aroma, fermentation enhances the quality of food as well as inhibits undesirable organisms. Also, this process is used for bread preparation and preparation of wine and beer. Food making processes such as brewing, baking, pickling and wine making make use of microbes. 

Let’s see below what is the role of microbes in the production of certain food products:

  1. Alcoholic Fermentation: Yeast converts sugar, grape juice or grains into alcohol. A mold can also convert starch into sugar and result in formation of the Japanese rice wine.

  2. Vinegar: Bacteria converts alcohol into acetic acid, giving acidic taste to vinegar.

  3. Cheese: The flavour and appearance of a specific kind of cheese is due to the presence of numerous microorganisms associated in it.

  4. Vitamins: Vitamins such as B2, C and B12 use microorganisms for their production.

  5. Antibiotics: Microbes are also used to prepare antibiotics.

2. Treatment of Water

Contaminated water is often cleaned up with microbes as these can respire the dissolved organic substances. It may be aerobic respiration with the help of a well-oxygenated filter bed like a slow sand filter.  Methanogens undergo anaerobic digestion and generate methane gas as a by-product which is quite useful.

3. Generation of Energy

Fermentation produces ethanol with the help of microbes as well as produces methane in biogas reactors. This way, various bacteria convert agricultural and urban waste into useful fuels and help in energy generation.

4. Production of Chemicals and Enzymes

Microbes are often used in commercial and industrial levels to produce enzymes, chemicals and bioactive molecules. Microbes such as acetic acid bacteria, butyric acid, Lactobacillus and Aspergillus niger help in microbial fermentation on a large industrial scale to produce organic acids. Bioactive molecules such as Streptokinase are produced from the bacterium Streptococcus and Statins are produced from the yeast Monascus purpureus.

5. Application in Science

Being essential tools in Life Sciences such as Biochemistry, Biotechnology, Genetics and Molecular Biology, microbes are of great importance. Important model microbes in Science are Saccharomyces cerevisiae (yeast) and Schizosaccharomyces pombe (yeast) and they are simple eukaryotes which can be obtained in large numbers and manipulated. Therefore, these are highly valuable in Genomics, Genetics and Proteomics.

6. Importance in Warfare

Microbes have been used as biological warfare, be it for spreading pathogens into castles in earlier days or using microbes for bioterrorism such as the release of Anthrax in the year 1993 in Tokyo.

7. Enrichment of Soil

Making nutrients and minerals in the soil suitably available to the plants, microbes also produce hormones facilitating growth and stimulating the plant immune system and dampening stress responses. It results in fewer diseases and higher yield of the plants with diverse sets of soil microbes.

8. Human Health

Microorganisms share an endosymbiotic relationship with humans as microbial symbiosis helps in enhancing our immune system and microbes depend on our body for their survival and food. Synthesis of vitamins such as biotin and folic acid is supported by the gut flora as well as these help in fermenting the complex and indigestible carbohydrates in our gastrointestinal tract. Also, food supplements or additives and probiotics consisting of microbes are helpful to us.

FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions)

1. How to Take Care of Microbial Hygiene?

As we know microbes are beneficial to humans in different ways. However, while handling microbes, it is important to take care of microbial hygiene as these can lead to infections due to mishandling. Hygiene is the set of practices required to avoid food spoilage and infection through elimination of microorganisms from the surroundings. Harmful microbes can also be reduced to acceptable levels and these can be reduced by preservation methods like cleaning utensils, short storage periods, cooking, exposure to low temperature, sterilization, autoclaving, killing with heat and pressure, etc.

2. What are Protists?

Unicellular and microscopic eukaryotic groups of microorganisms are called protists which are nor too easy to classify. Algae species and slime molds have been falling in this group and these have unique life cycles. These are found in high oceans, river sediment and deep sea vents.