The world around us is full of organisms that are too small to be seen with the naked eye – bacteria, viruses, fungi, algae and protozoa. These microbes live in a wide range of habitats from hot springs to the human body and the depths of the ocean. They affect each and every aspect of life on earth.
We can all think of a few microbes that make us ill – the viruses that cause colds and flu or food poisoning bacteria. However there are many more microbes living harmlessly alongside us playing a vital role in the planet’s nutrient cycles, from fixing nitrogen and carbon dioxide at the beginning of the food chain right through to decomposing and recycling essential nutrients at the end of it. Microbes are also essential to production of many foods and medicines – imagine our diets without cheese, bread, yoghurt or a world where the slightest bacterial infection or wound could prove fatal because there were no antibiotics or vaccines.
Microbes have always affected our health, food and environment and they will play an important role in the big issues that face us in the future: climate change, renewable energy resources; healthier lifestyles and controlling diseases.
What do microbiologists do?
Because microbes have such an effect on our lives, they are a major source of interest and employment to thousands of people. Microbiologists study microbes: where they occur, their survival strategies, how they can affect us and how we can exploit them.
All around our planet there are microbiologists making a difference to our lives - maybe ensuring the safety of our food or treating and preventing disease or developing green technologies or tracking the role of microbes in climate change.
Before microbiologists can solve the problems caused by microbes, or exploit their amazing powers, they have to find out about the detailed workings of microbial cells. This basic knowledge of cell genetics, structure and function can then be used in applied microbiology as well as in other areas of biology.
Microbiologists are essential in the fight against infectious diseases. Many work as biomedical scientists in hospitals and Health Protection Agency labs, investigating samples of body tissue and fluids to diagnose infections, monitor treatments or track disease outbreaks. Some microbiologists work as clinical scientists in hospital and medical school laboratories where they carry out research and give scientific advice to medical staff who treat patients. Other microbiologists work on pathogens that cause diseases, such ‘flu or TB, and the information they find is used by their colleagues to develop vaccines and better treatments.
Some microbiologists study how microbes live alongside other creatures in different habitats such as the ocean, salt lakes and Antarctica. They develop early warning sensors to detect pollution and use microbes to treat industrial waste. Others contribute to the worldwide research on climate change by investigating the effect of microbial processes on atmospheric composition and climate. Microbiologists also work with technologists and engineers to develop greener sources of energy produced from urban and industrial waste
Without agriculture there would be no food for us to eat. Microbiologists investigate the vital role of microbes in soil. Some concentrate on plant pests and diseases, developing ways to control them. Others research the pathogens that cause diseases in farm animals. Microbiologists also use microbes to control insect pests and weeds, especially in developing countries.
Microbiologists work in many UK bioscience and food companies. They carry out research and develop new products or work in quality control to monitor manufacturing processes and check the microbiological safety of goods such as medicines, cosmetics, toiletries, biochemicals and food and drink.
Where do microbiologists work?
Universities, research institutes and industrial companies employ microbiologists to do basic, environmental, healthcare and agricultural research. Medical microbiologists also work in hospitals and Health Protection Agency laboratories.
Industrial microbiologists work in a range of companies – from big pharmaceutical, biochemical, biotechnology and food businesses through to smaller firms that develop biopharmaceuticals or specialist products.
Outside the lab
If you still love microbiology but find that lab-based work is not for yo6u, there are still some great options where you can use the scientific knowledge and transferable skills you’ve acquired whilst studying. Microbiologists can use their knowledge and skills in a wide range of careers in industry (marketing, technical support and regulatory affairs) education (teaching, museums and science centres), business (patent attorney or accountant) and communications (public relations, journalism and publishing). You can explore the multitude of careers open to people with a science qualification at www.futuremorph.org.
You can find out more about education and training using the links below: