[audio:http://wamcradio.org/EarthWise/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/EW-02-06-12-Microbes.mp3|titles=EW 02-06-12 Microbes]
Without microbes, none of these things would be possible.
Microbes are single-celled organisms that include bacteria and fungi. Microbes “breathe” and “eat” — except they aren’t restricted to oxygen like us — and their food includes sugars and starches, as well as rocks and chemicals.
Microbes are everywhere and they make up a large part of the environment. A single teaspoon of garden soil can hold more than a billion microbes. Even extreme places, such as Antarctic ice sheets, are home to flourishing microbial communities.
These tiny powerhouses are essential to healthy soils. Through a process called decomposition, microbes break complex organic substances into smaller units that other plants can more readily absorb.
Dr. Amy Burgin is a soil scientist at the University of Nebraska…
“Microbes do a lot of really good things for us – beer, wine, bread, cheese, all kinds of good stuff, in addition to cleaning out water and keeping us healthy,” says Burgin.
Many microbes produce chemicals that compete with and fight off other microbes. We know these mainly as antibiotics. Penicillin, for example, was first extracted from bread molds.
Transgenic crops, such as Bt corn, are another example of how humans have tapped into microbial chemical warfare.
By borrowing genes’ bacterium that produces a toxin poisonous to insects, plant scientists have create created a strain of genetically modified corn that can ward off insects.
While the merits of genetically modified crop remain hotly debated, one thing is certain —we owe a lot to microbes. Without them, plants wouldn’t grow, food would be scarce, and the world would be overflowing with garbage.
This script was adapted from a column by Amy Burgin that originally ran in the Poughkeepsie Journal. You can access the original article here – http://www.caryinstitute.org/ecofocus_2008-09-14.html.