Microbiology and the UN Sustainable Development Goals: scientific approaches to the Global Challenges

Issue: Fleming Prize Winners

20 October 2020 article

The year 2020 should have focused on climate action and biodiversity; instead, the COVID-19 pandemic naturally dominates, with virology and microbiology centre-stage.

Coincidentally, a prominent study about spill-over risks for human zoonoses from endangered mammalian species was completed just before the current pandemic. Indeed, pandemics are associated with global environmental changes and lack of sustainability, with COVID-19 likely linked, at least in part, to anthropogenic activity. Meanwhile, the future of human life and Earth’s ecosystems are threatened by the ‘Global Challenges’: biodiversity loss, climate change, energy demands, population growth, etc. Attempts to address some of the challenges started over 30 years ago, but with progress limited to particular topics in selected countries.

In 1987, the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED), also known as the Brundtland Commission, laid the foundations for the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) for 2000–2015. Released by the UN in 2015, the current set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) seeks to re-address increasingly critical challenges with new impetus. The application of science and technology is essential for delivering the SDGs. Scientific research helps us to understand problems as well as identify implementable solutions. However, despite the efforts of UN agencies to bring the SDGs to the top of the international agenda, many scientists know little about the Global Challenges and the aims of the SDGs. Academics, including some microbiologists, are often unaware of whether or not their research is even related to the SDGs or if they could do more to support the goals. Here we advance several reflections for consideration by the microbiology community.

  1. Knowledge of the Global Challenges and the SDGs is poor among scientists. Awareness and understanding of sustainability are essential to drive transformational research and to develop solutions. If researchers are not informed about the SDGs and the Global Challenges, they cannot position their project in the context of sustainability. It would therefore be worthwhile to deliver a series of lectures plus workshops on the SDGs.
  2. Knowledge of specific SDG targets would enable researchers to draw appropriate connections and describe their research in the context of the SDGs. Examples relevant to microbiology include SDGs #2 (Food), #3 (Health), #6 (Clean Water and Sanitation) and #9 (Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure).
  3. Basic research also supports the SDGs. Firstly, it contributes directly or indirectly to quality education (SDG #4) by favouring an academic environment of high standard, providing cutting-edge training. Secondly, it helps build and consolidate institutions (SDG #16).
  4. Any interdisciplinary research is potentially a basis for Goal #17 on partnership. Microbiology offers excellent opportunities for collaborative work because it often involves trans-disciplinary issues. Examples include microbial metabolism and biogeochemical cycles; microbial genomics, antibiotic resistance and clinical microbiology; diet–gut microbiome–health interactions.
  5. Microbiologists are typically well aware of the importance of a matrix of interacting biological processes and should therefore have a natural receptiveness to the understanding of ecosystem balance and environmental resistance. They can quickly grasp ‘ethical’ SDGs, such as #12 on ‘Responsible Consumption and Production’, and are well positioned to inspire young people with respect to universally relevant Goals such as #13 on climate action and #7 on energy, both of which have microbiology links.
  6. Studies on the microbiome of humans, animals, plants and physical environments provide a platform for microbial ecology relevant for health, sustainable food production and environmental protection. Human microbiome function involves a life-long mutualism with the host, a relationship sculpted by co-evolution for mutual benefit, but sensitive to habitual diet, medication and lifestyle. Appreciation of these aspects of human health should foster a more sensitive approach to the planet’s supporting systems.
  7. Universities can play a huge role in driving society towards sustainable development: education is essential for understanding and embracing sustainability. Using the WCED report and the MDGs as a springboard, in 2005 the UN launched the Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (ESD). This project was spearheaded by UNESCO and prompted the inclusion of sustainability in education systems. In the developing world, Chile embraced these novel ideas. Internationally, the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) developed some excellent courses. Regardless of the degree subject, any student would benefit from the inclusion of a module on sustainability in their study programme.
  8. Greater scientific involvement in pursuing the SDGs would erode the gap between science and policy, which is compromising progress towards implementing solutions. Sustainability-literate scientists could exert influence on decision making, even if this were ‘only’ at the level of their department or university, for example by supporting a sustainability charter. Scientific input can help prevent decisions being dominated by political and economic considerations, and scientists versed in technical language and theory can bridge the science–policy gap.
  9. In the Anthropocene, human societies have lost balance and perspective: perhaps because of their over-reliance on technology, they no longer possess that impalpable but essential understanding of nature and its laws, an understanding that underpins the Scientific Method. Microbiologists as global citizens have a role in discussions on ESD and science-based policy and they can promote reconnection with nature and respect for the planetary boundaries.
  10. Science and science-based advice must play a leading role in ensuring a sustainable future for societies. Because of the multiple mutual interactions between climate and micro-organisms, it is not possible to tackle the global challenges on climate change without microbiological knowledge. Unless an authentic and rational conversation on sustainability takes place involving the scientific community, we will continue along the ‘business-as-usual’ path instead of working towards the sustainable development path; we must use knowledge to lead the way away from complacency and apathy.

It is hoped that these reflections may be considered by the community of microbiologists and researchers at large, although it is likely that more in-depth awareness needs to be raised in a properly structured forum for sustainability principles and sustainability science to be genuinely embraced.

Further reading

Johnson CK, Hitchens PL, Pandit PS, Rushmore J, Smiley Evans T et al. Global shifts in mammalian population trends reveal key predictors of virus spillover risk. Proc Biol Sci 2020;287:20192736. DOI:10.1098/rspb.2019.2736.

Bedford J, Farrar J, Ihekweazu C, Kang G, Koopmans M et al. A new twenty-first century science for effective epidemic response. Nature 2019;575:130–136. DOI:10.1038/s41586-019-1717-y.

Cavicchioli R, Ripple WJ, Timmis KN, Azam F, Bakken LR et al. Scientists’ warning to humanity: microorganisms and climate change. Nat Rev Microbiol 2019;17:569–586. DOI:10.1038/s41579-019-0222-5

Paul W. O’Toole

School of Microbiology, and APC Microbiome Ireland, University College Cork, Cork, Ireland.
[email protected]



Max Paoli*

The World Academy of Sciences (UNESCO), Strada Costiera 11, 34151 Trieste, Italy.
[email protected]


*“The author is responsible for the choice and the presentation of the facts contained in the article and for the opinions expressed therein, which are not necessarily those of UNESCO and do not commit the Organization.