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What is Microorganisms?

Since their discovery, microorganisms have been found in almost every environment on earth. Microorganisms are capable of causing disease but are also used to make bread, cheese, yoghurt, wine and beer.
The invention of the microscope allowed humans to look into the tiny world of microorganisms. Since their discovery, microorganisms have been found to inhabit almost every environment on earth including those thought previously to be uninhabitable, such as hot springs and acidic pools. We can now explain diseases as infections from microorganisms rather than spontaneously generated from 'miasma'. Humans had long used microorganisms to make bread, cheese, yoghurt wine and beer, but without knowing how these processes worked. We are also discovering that microorganisms are vital to the health of the planet by being an important part of nutrient cycling.

A microorganism is a living organism that is too small to be seen without the aid of a microscope. Microorganisms are incredibly diverse and include bacteria and fungi as well as archae, protists, plankton and amoeba. Viruses are not considered to be living organisms but are often considered to be microorganisms because of their extremely small size.

Microorganisms - Beneficial and Harmful Effects
Essential Microorganisms

Without the key functions of some bacteria, life on earth would be very different:

Some microorganisms degrade organic compounds for energy, and without microorganisms, the earth would have no soil in which to grow plants.
Microorganisms living in the gut can help animals break down food. These so-called 'good bacteria' help maintain the conditions necessary for food digestion.
Some microorganisms live on the root nodules of certain plants, for example, peas, beans and clover, and are able to 'fix' atmospheric nitrogen into a form that can be absorbed by the plant as a fertiliser.

Scientists believe it was the chemical processes of early cyanobacteria, harnessing the energy from the sun, that released the oxygen that makes up our atmosphere. It took approximately 2 billion years for the bacteria to build up enough oxygen in the atmosphere to allow for the evolution of multi-cellular organisms.

Useful Microorganisms

Microorganisms have long been used by humans to create food products such as cheese, yoghurt, pickles, soy sauce and vinegar. We are also able to use bacteria to break down our sewage and to clean up oil spills.

Many microorganisms are very fast growing – under ideal conditions, Escherichia coli are able to double their number in 20 minutes. This makes them very useful tools in molecular biology and biochemistry, as they can be manipulated much faster than more complex and slower growing organisms. We can manipulate microorganisms to grow a protein of interest, for example, insulin, and then grow them in large vats to produce a large quantity of the desired protein.

Harmful Microorganisms

Only a small handful of known microorganisms are capable of causing disease. These microorganisms are termed pathogenic.To cause disease, the microorganisms must invade the cells of a living organism. Most microorganisms will not invade another living organism, and many more bacteria are rendered harmless by our immune systems, while others, such as gut bacteria, are beneficial.
In many developing countries, poor hygiene, limited access to clean water and poor (or no) sewage treatment leads to huge numbers of deaths from bacterial infections such as those that cause dysentery.

The advent of antibiotics like penicillin has greatly reduced the number of deaths due to bacterial infections. However, increased use of antibiotics in many western countries has led to the adaptation of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, which can lead to outbreaks of so-called 'super bugs', such as Multi-Resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). Scientists now believe that humans require contact with bacteria at an early age in order to 'educate' our immune systems between good and bad bacteria. The scientists believe that western societies' obsession with antibacterial products has increased our chances of developing immune-related conditions such as asthma, allergies and eczema.

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