Microscopic Biodiversity Vital for You and Me


Photo credit: Joerg Battermann

Just because you don't see them, doesn't mean they're not there--or that they're not imperative to our survival. The health of our planet depends on billions and billions of tiny, invisible organisms, according to scientists speaking at a meeting of the American Society for Microbiology.

"We're right on the brink of exploring a whole new world," said Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson, who gave the keynote address last week. New microbiological technologies facilitate the study of organisms that cannot be grown in a lab, but even as scientists hunker down with their bright, shiny instruments, "we are losing these species because of the destruction of the environment."Wilson, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and the author of more than 20 books, including The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth, said that we've yet to decipher the functions of hundreds of millions of species. Humanity, he said, "will enormously benefit from the systematic study of biodiversity, connecting it with economic growth and conservation policy."

For millions of years, microbes have been making antibiotic compounds, which, in turn, have been developed into lifesaving drugs for us humans. The overuse of antibiotics in medicine and agriculture, however, has allowed disease-causing uglies to bulk up their drug resistance.

You may not think it, but they also form the foundation of the food chain and provide about half of the oxygen we breathe, effectively making the little guys the "heart, lungs, and digestive system of the planet," said Edward DeLong of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

If only human activity over the past 100 years wasn't interfering with the ability of microbes to maintain a balance. Microorganisms "are really stewards of the planet, in terms of managing cycles of matter and energy," DeLong said, and scientists need a clearer understanding of what is going on.

Man, microbes--you can't live with them, you can't live without them. :: USA Today

See also: :: New Worries about Climate Change-Induced Spread of Infectious Diseases and :: E.O. Wilson's The Creation Released Today

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