Frog-killing fungi, the methods bacteria use to evade antibiotics, and the hidden microbes deep inside an Antarctic lake: These are just a few of the topics covered in “Small Things Considered,” a microbiology blog run by Moselio Schaechter. Schaechter is former president of the American Society for Microbiology and is a distinguished professor emeritus at Tufts University School of Medicine in Boston.
Q. The word “microbe” makes many nonscientists reach for the hand sanitizer. What are some of the ways in which microbes are beneficial to humans and other species?
A. The overwhelming number of microbes on this planet are beneficial, and life would not be possible without them. So, far from being yucky germs, the great majority are our friends, our benefactors, our protectors. The proportion of those that cause disease to humans is infinitesimally small, although it’s true that many of the diseases they cause can be quite serious. But keep in mind that about half of everything that goes on biologically on Earth is due to microbes. They make up about half the total biomass, carry out about half of photosynthesis, and most of the needed recycling of dead plant and animal matter.
Q. One of the recent posts on your blog is the role of microbes in what you term “colon cancer’s little shop of horrors.” What microbes are most threatening to people?
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A. If you include the viruses – which are not microbes, but agents of a different sort – then perhaps that is where you can find the most danger. We have very few drugs to treat viral disease. Even though bacteria are becoming increasingly resistant to antibiotics, most of them can still be treated.
Q. What are a couple of the most exciting things being learned right now in the field of microbiology?
A. Microbes have an unexpected ability to communicate with each other, even with different species. They do this via chemicals, sort of the way that insects talk to each other.
Q. Is climate change affecting the world of microbes?
A. To be honest, we still do not know enough about the ecology of the world of microbes to be able to predict how climate change will affect (them). They are, after all, extremely adaptable. It was (Louis) Pasteur, the father of microbiology, who 150 years ago said, “Gentlemen, at the end, it will be the microbes that will survive.”