The cdc graphic for examination of multiple organisms through microscopy.
The cdc graphic for examination of multiple organisms through microscopy.

My vast (yet slightly limited) knowledge of microbial life has led me to one basic conclusion: Microbes rule, people drool. It is a simple concept of Darwin’s survival of the fittest, and let’s face it — people aren’t the fittest.

If our core body temperature moves outside of the normal 97.1-100.0 body range, we are not doing so well. Hypothermia and hyperthermia are basic indicators that we are in trouble, our regulatory systems struggling. The immune response saying “Houston, we have a problem” usually leads to a cascade of problems.

At the root of each struggle is usually a microbe. This microbe is leaning over a tub of water with a blow-dryer in one hand saying, “Dare me.” Your immune system can be torn to shreds at the slightest threat from a microbe.

You may wonder how these little “bugs” are so hardy. There is one word for this: evolution. Evolution has been nice to microbes. Generally, every little mutation aids survival of one species or another. If humans were to mutate at the rate of microbes, our DNA would post a sign saying “gone fishing” and we would exit the building. The relation to monkeys as ancestors would be the least of our worries.

What evolutionary traits have helped the survival of microorganisms? There is an extensive list, but I will try to narrow it down.

1.) Many microbes have developed shock proteins that come alive when faced with stress. Escherichia coli, often referred to as E. coli, is notorious for having these. Just like many humans say, “I’ve got an app for that,” these microbes “have a cellular response for that.” When faced with changes such as pH, temperature or lack of nutrients, the organism goes into survival mode and turns into the Bear Grylls and Survivorman we all have yearned to be. It seems quite unfair, but such is life.

2.) There are three types of organisms that, when faced with lack of food or other similar conditions, turn into a little ball and can survive nearly anywhere for extended periods of time. These little things are called endospores. How is this different from human survival? Well, we all may want to curl up in the fetal position at one time or another, but it never does us any good. This mechanism of survival is just one of the fascinating features of certain microorganisms.

3.) This last one we may think we have defeated, but it is an ever-growing problem among hospitalized patients. Antibiotic resistance is becoming more and more common in hospital settings. These organisms have gained resistance through a variety of factors, all leading back to the word of the day: evolution. A runny nose does not warrant antibiotics, yet the causation of antibiotic resistance has been jump-started by overuse of antibiotics. These microorganisms can enter a hospital with someone and end up killing 18 immunocompromised people simply because the “bug” is resistant to the drug of last resort.

I know I have mentioned a lot about what makes microbes so awesome, but the biggest factor about microbes is the sheer number of them. Within the human body, there are more microbial cells than human cells. Although human cells are larger and more complex, the microbial cells can cause upset and imbalance where able.

These little organisms can cause disease and help fight disease. They can be beneficial yet deadly when given the opportunity. There is much known about microorganisms, but scientists are discovering new strains each day. The latest discovery is a microorganism trapped two miles below the ice in Antarctica. It is unlike any other microorganism to date. I don’t know your opinion, but to me, that is pure talent.

I imagine that being a microbiologist may sound boring to some, but to me the idea is: keep your friends close, keep your enemies closer.  I want to know all I can because microbes rule, people drool.

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