What microbiologists do
All around the world there are microbiologists making a difference to our lives – ensuring our food is safe, treating and preventing disease, developing green technologies or tracking the role of microbes in climate change.
Microbiologists aim to answer many important global questions by understanding microbes. They work in many places, from labs in universities, research institutes and industrial companies, to investigating microbes in fieldwork. However, knowledge of microbiology is not just important for these careers. Microbiologists can also use their knowledge and skills in a wide range of careers in industry (marketing, technical support and regulatory affairs), education (teaching, museums and science centres), business (patent attorney or accountant) and communications (public relations, journalism and publishing).
When you first think of microbes, the ones that make us ill may spring to mind: viruses that cause colds and flu, or bacteria that can cause serious diseases such as meningitis and tuberculosis. However, microbes can also be beneficial in health and disease – as they are used to make new therapies that help us to fight infections and illness.
Before microbiologists can solve the problems caused by microbes, or exploit their abilities, they have to find out how microbes work. They can then use this knowledge to prevent or treat diseases, develop new technologies and improve our lives in general.
Microbiologists are essential in helping us to treat diseases, many work as biomedical scientists in hospitals and laboratories: testing samples of body tissue, blood and fluids to diagnose infections, monitor treatments or track disease outbreaks. Some microbiologists work as clinical scientists in hospitals, universities and medical school laboratories where they carry out research and give scientific advice to medical staff. Other microbiologists work on disease-causing microbes, such as flu or tuberculosis, and the information they find is used to develop vaccines and improve current treatments.
While microbes are responsible for most of the methane produced on earth, contributing to global warming, this methane can also be beneficial as it can be used as a biofuel – an alternative source of energy helping in the fight against climate change.
Microbes also play an important role in the planet's nutrient cycles; the carbon cycle and nitrogen cycle are dependent on microbes.
Microbes can be used to clean up contaminated land and oil spills in an ecologically important process called bioremediation.
Some microbiologists study how microbes live alongside other creatures in different habitats from the ocean, to salt lakes and Polar Regions. Some develop early warning sensors to detect pollution and use microbes to treat industrial waste. Others contribute to the worldwide research on climate change by looking at how microbes affect atmospheric conditions and climate. Microbiologists also work alongside technologists and engineers to develop greener sources of energy produced from urban and industrial waste.
Microbes are essential for the production of many foods. Most people know that microbes are used to make cheese, bread and yogurt, but did you know they are also used to make chocolate, Marmite and salami?
There are millions of bacteria living in our gut that help us take nutrients from our food and compete with 'bad' microbes to prevent illness. Some foods have probiotics added which are live cultures of bacteria that boost the numbers of 'good' microbes and improve gut health.
Whilst microbes can cause disease in crops and farm animals, they can also help to control pests and weeds to increase crop yields.
Without agriculture there would be no food for us to eat. Microbiologists investigate the vital role of microbes in soil. Some concentrate on plant pests and diseases, developing ways to control them or even use microbes to control insect pests and weeds. Others research the microbes that cause diseases in farm animals. Many UK bioscience and food companies employ microbiologists. Some carry out research and develop new products. Others work in quality control in factories to monitor manufacturing processes and ensure the microbiological safety of goods such as medicines, food and drink.