What Do Microbiologists Do?

Table of Contents

What is a microbiologist?

A microbiologist is a scientist who studies microscopic organisms. These include bacteria, viruses, fungi, and algae. They use a variety of equipment and techniques to study them, from simple microscopes to DNA-sequencing technology. 

Fine_rotative_table_Microscope
Microbiologists use microscopes to study microscopic things. Credit: Wikimedia/Les Chatfield

Working with such tiny microorganisms can be difficult. It requires a high level of precision and cleanliness because microbes are everywhere. They are found naturally on our bodies and are in the air we breathe. So, it is easy for samples to become contaminated. To prevent this, microbiologists often work in laboratories where the environment can be strictly controlled.

Microbiologists can work in universities helping with a variety of different research projects to improve our understanding of microorganisms. They can also work in healthcare or veterinary science, typically analysing medical samples.

What do microbiologists do?

Healthcare

Many diseases we know about are caused by microorganisms. It has been microbiologists who have made vaccines to protect us against them. They have been so successful that some diseases have been eradicated altogether.

Studying how microbes affect us can help us discover new medicines. We can then treat different diseases by targeting these microorganisms. This was very important during the recent Covid-19 pandemic. Microbiologists studied the coronavirus to determine how it evaded our immune system and made us ill. By understanding the complex nature of the virus, they could develop a vaccine to protect us from it.

Ecology

Microorganisms are very important in our ecosystem. They break down waste and dead material, an important process in the ecology of our planet. We are always findings new microbes that can help us and the planet we live on. Recently plastic-eating bacteria have been discovered. These could help break down the millions of tonnes of plastic flowing into in our oceans every year.

Soil microbes are vital for the health of our soils. We rely on them to grow crops, graze livestock and for the health of our forests and woodlands. They help to provide nutrients for plant life and can lock away carbon, which is important in the fight against climate change.

Nutrition

We all have millions of microbes inside our guts. These are often dubbed ‘good’ bacteria. They help us break down food and provide us with energy. Understanding how these work and their interactions with each other can improve our health. Some scientists study these microbes and aim to prevent certain gastrointestinal diseases.

For example, microbiologists have developed prebiotics which feed the good bacteria inside us and probiotics which contain good bacteria to add to our guts. Microbiologists can also enhance the microbes inside the guts of farm animals which can improve animal growth, health and welfare.

Bacteria_collage
A range of bacteria as seen using different types of microscopes. Credit: Wikimedia/148LENIN

How do you become a microbiologist?

If you are always asking ‘why’ and ‘how’, then you could be a great scientist. Scientists are always trying to find answers to those questions and microbiologists do the same.

You can study microbiology or any life science subject in university. Afterwards you can work in a microbiology laboratory. Some jobs don’t need you to have a university degree, instead you can learn on the job.

Under the microscope – a look at today’s top female microbiologists

Liz Sockett is a British microbiologist who had made important discoveries in the fight against antibiotic resistance.

She is the world’s leading expert on a bacteria called Bdellovibrio bacteriovorus. This is a predatory bacteria particularly targeting antibiotic-resistant bacteria. She described them as ‘living antibiotics’ because they actively seek out harmful bacteria and destroy them.

Slice_from_electron_cryotomogram_of_Bdellovibrio_bacteriovorus_cell
Electron microscope image of Bdellovibrio bacteriovorus bacteria. Credit: Wikimedia/Eikosi

Her discovery is incredibly important because the World Health Organization says antibiotic resistance is one of the top ten threats facing humanity today.

Another remarkable microbiologist is Lisa Hensley who has worked on some of the world’s most dangerous infections. These have included diseases such as Ebola, SARS, and smallpox. She and her colleagues have made vaccines for deadly diseases such as Marbug virus and Lassa fever.

Her hard work and determination at such a young age has paid off. She was recognised as one of the Ten Outstanding Young Americans by the United States Junior Chamber in 2007. Then, just a year later, she was acknowledged as one of the Ten Outstanding Young Persons of the World by Junior Chamber International. She is now associate director of science at an infectious disease centre in Maryland.

Lisa Hensley – a successful, young microbiologist
Lisa Hensley – a successful, young microbiologist. Credit: Wikimedia/U.S. Army

Glossary

Organisms:  A living thing. A plant, animal, or single-celled life form.

Microorganisms: A microscopic organism, often single-celled or living in a colony of cells.

Ecosystem: The web of life which includes living (pants, animals and microbes) and non-living parts (climate and geography).

Gastrointestinal: Related to the gut.

Flesch Kincaid Grade Level: 10

Flesch Kincaid Reading Ease: 43.2

  1. Scott Dutfield (2022) Live Science Plastic-eating bacteria: Genetic engineering and environmental impact https://www.livescience.com/plastic-eating-bacteria Accessed November 8th 2023
  2. WHO (2021) Antimicrobial resistance https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/antimicrobial-resistance Accessed November 8th 2023
  3. University of Nottingham https://www.nottingham.ac.uk/life-sciences/news/2019/liz-sockett-royal-society-member.aspx Accessed November 8th 2023
  4. Lisa Hensley (microbiologist) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lisa_Hensley_(microbiologist) Accessed November 8th 2023

Contributors

  • Kate Lewis, Ph.D.
    I studied for my BSc Zoology degree in Swansea University, UK in 2009 and competed my PhD in Agriculture in 2014 at Aberystwyth University, UK. I'm passionate about science, in particular zoology. I've worked in research for over 10 years. This work is usually broad and extensive. It has involved finding solutions to problems associated with farming, antibiotic resistance, animal and human nutrition, and reducing the impact of agriculture on climate change. I have had the pleasure of working both in the UK and overseas. My most enjoyable project to date, has been working along the African Rift Valley. I love talking about these topics and trying to convey my enthusiasm for them through scientific writing. Writing for Smore Magazine allows me to do that.

Copyright @smorescience. All rights reserved. Do not copy, cite, publish, or distribute this content without permission.


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