Very small things

I’m very well read. Possibly not in the sense of great literature – I’ve never read a whole novel by Dickens, my Shakespeare is shaky and I’ve managed the first chapter of Catch 22 about four times but never got any further. However, I work as a scientific editor and this means that I get to read some fascinating pieces of research (as well as some dull ones). And they come from all over the world because, mostly, I work with authors whose first language isn’t English. Much of the work that I read is at the cutting edge of its particular subject, whether that’s ecology, genetics, forestry, biotechnology, nursing or education, so I get to know about new ideas and technologies before they have even been published and become available to the rest of the world… which is how, a couple of years ago, I came to know about research in Sweden looking at how micro-organisms that occur naturally in the soil can be used to deal with pollutants from the paper industry… and not just make them harmless, but convert them into a useful product… biomass or ethanol to use as fuel, for example.

Which brings me to the point of this post… aren’t micro-organisms brilliant?

Yes, I know some of them cause diseases, but they are in the minority. Go out into a woodland and scrape the top layer of leaves off the soil and you will find very fine white strands – fungal mycelia. These make connections with plant roots, providing the plants with improved access to water and minerals. And the only time most people are aware of them is when they produce their fruiting bodies – mushrooms and toadstools. But these fungi are not really micro-organisms – we can see them with the naked eye (at least some of the time). What about organisms that are even smaller?

Bacteria and small fungi in the soil are essential components of the system – without them the soil simply would not function in the way it does. They are responsible for all sorts of activities, but especially decomposition of plant material, dead animals and faeces… without this happening the world could not function. There are also special bacteria that fix nitrogen from the atmosphere and without them there would be no life as we know it since nitrogen is an essential part of the proteins that are building blocks for life and enzymes that allow all sorts of chemical reactions to take place inside living things.

We use fungi directly in our food chain – mushrooms and truffles are an obvious food, but there’s also the yeast we use in our bread, beer and wine, and to make Marmite and various cheeses. Remember too that the first antibiotic, penicillin, came from a fungus. We eat bacteria as well, although that may not be quite so obvious, but they are used to make yoghurt, cheeses, wine, vinegar, soy sauce and various pickles.

Algae are also interesting – they are microscopic (or bigger) plants. They are very simple in terms of their structure, but they photosynthesise and so they, like all green plants, make their own food from water and carbon dioxide with the help of sunshine. As humans, we don’t tend to eat much algae… although we could… but lots of organisms do. If you head over to the Aquaponic Family blog you will find out all sorts of interesting stuff about algae and what they can be used to do.

So, we really should appreciate the micro-organisms around us more. If we are gardeners, we can care for the fungi, algae and bacteria in the soils that we cultivate by ensuring good soil structure and plenty of compost for those decomposers to work on. Be thoughtful, too, about what chemicals you apply to your soil – changing the pH will change the composition of micro-organisms, applying fungicides may kill the fungi you do want as well as those you don’t. Allowing the soil to become waterlogged will deprive decomposers of oxygen and dead matter will not break down fully (that’s how peat forms). Our compost heaps also rely on the action of micro-organisms, creating a valuable resource for the garden in the form of compost, but also generating heat which, if we are careful, we can make use of by means of hot beds or siting our composter against the greenhouse or inside a polytunnel. You can even grow squashes on top of your compost heap for an early and abundant crop.

So, next time you’re sitting enjoying a beer or some wine and cheese, give a thought to the little critters that made them possible.

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8 Comments

  1. One of the most interesting ideas I’ve come across recently is the reconception of human beings as human-bacteria conglomerations; we are literally comprised of more bacterial cells than human ones and are totally dependent on them for our day to day function.

    Reply
    • Do you have a reference for this? I’d be really interested to read more.

      Reply
      • http://www.wired.com/medtech/health/news/2004/10/65252. Paul Hawken also mentioned the idea in a talk I went to before, viewing the human body not as an individual, but as a community.

        Reply
        • Fascinating – I had always thought that there was some merit in thinking of humans as an ecosystem in their own right (I am an ecologist by training, after all), but this highlights a whole different perspective. The amount of non-human DNA we are carrying around with us is huge and those figures for numbers of cells are astonishing. I wonder what implications this insight will have for medicine in the future

          Reply
  2. Beneficial microorganisms are not only everywhere, we simply could not exist without them. We’re just starting to understand microbe-plant interactions. Thanks for the post.

    Reply
    • Gosh this is such an old post, I had to come back and re-read it to remind myself what I’d written. I’m glad you liked it. When I first studied ecology (30 years ago), the emphasis was mostly on competitive interactions, so it’s been interesting to see how our understanding of communities of micro-organisms has changed this perspective and how much co-operation actually occurs in natural systems. What a change from the Darwinian idea of ‘nature red in tooth and claw’

      Reply
  3. Reblogged this on Blog by Mr-Bill and commented:
    I don’t often run into posts about beneficial microorganisms. I’ve reposted this in its entirety. Enjoy.

    Reply

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