Can Microorganisms Save the World?

Estimated reading time: 8 minutes

Podcast version

In the second part of our series of investigations into potential solutions to some of the planet’s most pressing issues, we’re looking at microorganisms and their role in (possibly) saving the world.

They’re so small that you can only see them with a microscope. But these tiny organisms are everywhere. They play an essential role in our ecosystems, and in human health.

Now, scientists and researchers are harnessing the powers of microorganisms to address complex problems, including keeping our soils healthy, breaking down plastic and other pollutants, and cleaning up our waterways.

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What Are Microorganisms?

Also known as microbes, microorganisms are a broad group of microscopic organisms that includes bacteria, protozoa, viruses, some types of algae, and some types of fungi, such as moulds and yeasts.

Although we can’t see them with the naked eye, these tiny organisms have a huge impact on how the world functions. The human body alone holds around 39 trillion microbial cells – which is more than the number of human cells we have. Meanwhile, a single teaspoon of topsoil holds a billion microbes from around 10,000 different species.

Microbes reproduce and evolve very quickly. This makes them ideal for researchers – they can be grown easily and inexpensively in a laboratory. Many can survive in extremely hostile environments too.

Microorganisms don’t always get the best press. While many are beneficial, others cause illness and disease, as we all know well from the past few years. Despite these pathogens, we can’t ignore how vital microorganisms are in many natural processes.

Humans have been harnessing the power of microorganisms for thousands of years, even if we didn’t necessarily know exactly what we were using. Baking bread, brewing beer, and making fermented foods like yoghurt and cheese all require input from microbes.

More recently, we’ve come to understand the importance of a diverse and balanced gut microbiome for human health. And we also know a lot more about how microorganisms in the soil keep plants healthy and nourished.

Food production and soil health is just the tip of the iceberg, however. The more scientists and researchers explore the power of microorganisms, the more we understand how important they are to the future of our planet.

How Can Microorganisms Save the World?

From creating healthy soils to fighting plastic pollution, there are many reasons why microbiologists and ecologists alike champion these tiny organisms. Without them, the world as we know it simply wouldn’t exist. And that means they are as vital to the future of our planet as they are to its present.

1. Human Health

If you are at all interested in health or nutrition, you’ll know a bit about the importance of microorganisms for our digestive systems, as well as our wider physical and mental health.

The delicate balance of microbes in our guts is essential to our ability to efficiently extract nutrients from our food. But they also have a larger part to play – scientists have linked the types of microorganisms found in our guts to everything from our mental health to our immune systems.

As always with microorganisms, it all depends on the exact species that are present in our guts (and the interaction between them). Some microorganisms are damaging and can increase our risk of disease. Others are beneficial and protect our health.

There’s plenty still to learn about the microorganisms in our guts and how they affect human health. But microbiologists are already harnessing the knowledge we’ve gained so far to use microbes to treat disease and malnutrition.

At Washington University in St Louis, research funded by the Gates Foundation is exploring the potential of microorganisms to combat malnutrition in children.

Led by microbiologist Jeffrey Gordon, the researchers have found a link between the type of bacteria present in the gut and malnutrition. In response, the team have developed treatment plans that concentrate on foods which feed the children’s gut microbiota, as well as the children themselves.

Meanwhile, there’s also increasing evidence of a link between the species of microbes in our guts and our risk of developing obesity.

Researchers noticed that there’s a difference in the gut microbiota present in people with obesity and those without. Now, they’ve managed to narrow this effect down to one particular chemical.

It seems microorganisms that produce more of the metabolite delta-valerobetaine are associated with higher levels of body fat. Eating a diet that encourages bacteria that don’t produce too much of this chemical might, therefore, help to combat obesity and prevent weight gain.


2. Healthy Soils

As we’ve already seen, our soils are teeming with microorganisms. Or at least, they are if they are healthy. These microbes aid in the decomposition of organic matter so that nutrients can be made available for new plants to grow. Essentially, the natural fertility of the soil depends on its microbiome.

These microorganisms can sometimes be damaging. Just like in humans, certain microbes cause disease in plants. But others do the opposite, protecting plants from pathogens and enhancing their ability to withstand droughts and heat. This ability to grow in drier conditions will be increasingly important as climate change continues to disrupt weather systems around the world.

And the microorganisms in the soil don’t only help plants to grow. When properly balanced, they also increase the soil’s ability to store carbon, keeping it out of the atmosphere and helping to slow climate change.

Unfortunately, conventional modern agriculture isn’t geared towards protecting the careful balance of microorganisms in the soil. The use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides disrupts the soil’s microbiome, as do intensive farming techniques such as regular tilling and reliance on monocrops.

For those who practice regenerative agriculture, however, restoring the soil’s health is a critical priority. And that includes farming in a way that supports and encourages the microorganisms that play such an essential role.

3. Biofuels and Clean Energy

If you read part 1 of this series, you’ll know that biofuels are the topic of some debate amongst environmental groups. While there’s a pressing need to find alternatives to polluting fossil fuels, many argue that focusing on biofuels is a distraction from renewable technologies like wind or solar power.

However, biofuels might still have a role to play in bridging the gap as we move from fossil fuels to cleaner forms of energy. Compared with conventional petroleum-based diesels, biodiesels emit 74% less greenhouse gases, according to a lifecycle analysis by Argonne National Laboratory.

Photo by greenleaf123 istockphoto

Creating biofuels from plant matter requires the transformation of plant sugars into ethanol. It is the same process we’ve used for years to create alcohol, just in a more refined way.

Microorganisms facilitate this process by producing enzymes that break down the plant sugars and convert them to ethanol. Yeast and some species of bacteria are most often used in the production of biofuels. Some scientists are also working to create new species of microorganisms that are specifically engineered to make biofuels more efficiently.

Even more excitingly, some bacteria can even produce electricity themselves. As yet, we’re not able to harness this electricity in a meaningful way, but engineers at MIT are making strides in identifying suitable species that might be able to power the batteries of the future.

At the same time, scientists at the University of Massachusetts Amherst have developed a way of generating electricity from moisture in the air by using protein nanowires made by microbes.

It’s early days but making electricity from thin air might one day be a reality, all because of microorganisms.

Photo by Naja Bertolt Jensen on Unsplash

4. Clean Water

There are few resources more essential to life than clean, safe water. We need it for our own sustenance, and to grow the crops we rely upon for food.

But in many places around the world, water is a scarce resource. And this issue is only getting worse as climate change continues to disrupt water supplies. An increase in extreme weather events also means a higher risk of water being contaminated due to flooding.

While some microorganisms are bad news in our water, causing disease, others have the opposite effect. Certain bacteria help to remove contaminants from water, making it safer to drink and to use for other purposes, like cooking, cleaning, and growing food. This is known as biological purification or biofiltration.

Microorganisms are often used to clean sewage and wastewater. But they can also be employed in even more drastic circumstances.

Oil spills are an ecological disaster, killing marine life and leaving waters polluted and toxic. However, naturally occurring microorganisms, such as bacteria, can effectively reduce the impact of such spills, breaking down the hydrocarbons and protecting the rest of the ecosystem.

5. Biopesticides

It is no secret that the chemical pesticides that are used to protect crops can be a disaster for our ecosystems and for human health. The World Health Organisation estimates that around three million cases of pesticide poisoning occur globally each year, leading to 250,000 deaths.

Meanwhile, pesticides also wreak environmental havoc, poisoning waterways and leading to a decline in beneficial insects, such as bees.

Despite these well-publicised issues, pesticides continue to be used around the world to protect crops and prevent the loss of vital food sources.

Alternatives are needed. And microorganisms might be one of the options.

Biopesticides are pesticides that use natural materials in place of laboratory-made chemicals. They are thought to be safer and less polluting than artificial equivalents. And the most common types of biopesticides are those that use microorganisms, including bacteria and fungi.

These microorganisms are much more specific than their chemical counterparts, affecting only the target pests (or a small group of pests). This makes them less likely to disrupt the wider ecosystem or poison valuable pollinators.

Biopesticides also leave little to no residue in the final crop, unlike chemical pesticides which often remain on our food even after it is washed. They easily biodegrade too, leaving no permanent trace in the soil.

6. Plastic Pollution

As a plastic-free skincare brand, fighting plastic pollution is extremely important to us here at Whitfords.

However, it isn’t enough to simply switch to plastic-free options. There’s plenty of plastic already in the world, and it is causing huge issues for the environment, especially in our seas and oceans.

Microplastics have now been found in Antarctic sea ice, as well as in the waters, soil, and snow. This is a far-reaching issue. And since plastic never fully decomposes, it is an issue that will continue for years if a solution can’t be found.

This is where microorganisms might, yet again, provide an answer.

Several types of microbes make enzymes that can break down plastics. Some microorganisms even use the carbon from the plastics as an energy source – essentially, they eat the plastic.

It’s an environmentally friendly solution to the issue of plastic waste and a growing area of research. The trouble is that there are many different types of plastic, so it will take a range of microorganisms to tackle all the different types present in our oceans.

For example, researchers in Japan, led by microbiologist Kohei Oda, discovered a new species of bacteria in 2016. Named Ideonella sakaiensis, this new species produces enzymes that break down PET, a type of plastic that is commonly used in food and drink packaging.

The bacteria can use PET as their sole source of nutrients, giving them an evolutionary advantage in a world full of plastics. And scientists have already found ways to refine the process, combining the two enzymes produced by the bacteria to create a ‘super enzyme’ capable of breaking down the PET even faster.

This is an exciting development and gives us hope for the future. But it doesn’t let us off the hook when it comes to reducing our reliance on plastic. There’s still an urgent need to embrace alternatives, especially when it comes to single-use plastics like packaging.

We don’t use any plastic at all in our eco-friendly skincare range, including in our packaging. Instead, we’re embracing innovative alternatives, like the FibrePod, a multi-use alternative to cardboard boxes, made from loofah – a vegetable from the same family as the cucumber. The FibrePod can be reused as a body exfoliator or a scrub for your kitchen, before ending this stage of its life in your compost bin.

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Sources and further reading:

Science Focus, The human microbiome: Everything you need to know about the 39 trillion microbes that call our bodies home

UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, Why do soil microbes matter?

East, R. (2013). Microbiome: soil science comes to life. Nature501(7468), S18-S19. [Google Scholar]

Kang, A., & Lee, T. S. (2015). Converting Sugars to Biofuels: Ethanol and Beyond. Bioengineering (Basel, Switzerland)2(4), 184–203.

Huo, H., Wang, M., Bloyd, C., & Putsche, V. (2009). Life-cycle assessment of energy use and greenhouse gas emissions of soybean-derived biodiesel and renewable fuels. Environmental science & technology43(3), 750-756.

MIT News, Technique identifies electricity-producing bacteria

Liu, X., Gao, H., Ward, J. E., Liu, X., Yin, B., Fu, T., … & Yao, J. (2020). Power generation from ambient humidity using protein nanowires. Nature578(7796), 550-554.

Li, Q., Yu, S., Li, L., Liu, G., Gu, Z., Liu, M., … & Ren, L. (2017). Microbial communities shaped by treatment processes in a drinking water treatment plant and their contribution and threat to drinking water safety. Frontiers in microbiology8, 2465.

(2010) Oil spills: microorganisms to the rescue? Nature Reviews Microbiology 8, 462

The World Health Organisation, The Impact of Pesticides on Health

Thakur, N., Kaur, S., Tomar, P., Thakur, S., & Yadav, A. N. (2020). Microbial biopesticides: current status and advancement for sustainable agriculture and environment. In New and future developments in microbial biotechnology and bioengineering (pp. 243-282). Elsevier.

Ainsworth, C. (2020). Therapeutic microbes to tackle disease. Nature577(7792), S20-S20.

Madhusoodanan, J. (2021). Inner Workings: Can feeding the gut microbiome treat malnutrition?. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences118(50).

Liu, K. H., Owens, J. A., Saeedi, B., Cohen, C. E., Bellissimo, M. P., Naudin, C., … & Jones, D. P. (2021). Microbial metabolite delta-valerobetaine is a diet-dependent obesogen. Nature Metabolism3(12), 1694-1705.

The Guardian, Microplastics found for first time in Antarctic ice where krill source food

Caruso, G. (2015). Plastic Degrading Microorganisms as a Tool for Bioremediation of Plastic Contamination in Aquatic Environments. Journal of Pollution Effects and Control, 3, 1-2.

Yoshida, S., Hiraga, K., Takehana, T., Taniguchi, I., Yamaji, H., Maeda, Y., … & Oda, K. (2016). A bacterium that degrades and assimilates poly (ethylene terephthalate). Science351(6278), 1196-1199.

Knott, B. C., Erickson, E., Allen, M. D., Gado, J. E., Graham, R., Kearns, F. L., … & McGeehan, J. E. (2020). Characterization and engineering of a two-enzyme system for plastics depolymerization. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences117(41), 25476-25485.

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