Education, Microbiology

What is Microbiology? Exploring the Research of Microorganisms and Infectious Diseases

Author Kimberly Hazel , 28-Apr-2022

While it may seem like a niche area of study, the science of microbiology has massive ramifications for the world around us. At its core, microbiology is the study of microorganisms, or microbes, a diverse group of generally minute simple life-forms that include algae, bacteria, archaea, fungi, protozoa, and viruses. 


Microbiology as a field of study focuses on the structure, function, and classification of these microbes with the goal of understanding, controlling, and even exploiting their activities.

What Makes Microbiology So Important?


Microbes are an essential part of all life on Earth. As a classification of organisms, microbes are very versatile and play a crucial role in a wide array of major biochemical processes such as food spoilage, biodegradation, biodeterioration, climate change, biotechnology, and epidemiology. 


By understanding different microbes and their functions, scientists can harness their abilities for beneficial uses in a diverse range of industries such as healthcare, fermentation, food production, and agriculture.


The History of Microbiology As a Science


The very first scientist to ever hypothesize that certain diseases may be caused by virtue of invisible organisms being transferred from one subject to another was the Italian Girolamo Fracastro in the 16th century.


However, the existence of microorganisms was not confirmed until the 17th century, when two scientists from The Royal Society named Robert Hooke and Antoni van Leeuwenhoek found that there was more than meets the eye when it comes to certain biological processes. 


The two scientists used the most rudimentary of magnification devices that acted as the world’s first microscopes. While these devices were only able to magnify from 25-fold to around 250-fold, this was still enough to identify larger microbial organisms.


In 1665, the duo would publish their research in a book entitled “Microphagia,” which presented the first published description of a microorganism, the microfungus Mucor.


These findings laid out the foundation for the study of microorganisms to be built upon over the next multiple centuries by scientists like Oliver Wendell Holmes, Joseph Lister, and Robert Koch.


In fact, many members of the scientific community regard Robert Koch as the father of modern microbiology. Koch gained this reputation by first discovering the microbe Bacilis anthrasis as the etiological agent of anthrax, a deadly disease that devastated livestock and often affected humans.

Types of Microbes in Microbiology


While there are many, many different types of microbes that occupy the invisible spaces around us, they typically fall into a handful of categories: bacteria, viruses, fungi, protozoa, and algae.


Bacterial Microbes:


Bacteria are unicellular, or single-cell, organisms that are independently reproducing. While they are very structurally simple, they function in a very complex way. Bacteria form the basis for all life on Earth. A vast majority of bacteria are beneficial to their environment and play a variety of important roles in their ecosystem such as recycling nutrients, breaking down toxic compounds, and many others. 


While a majority of bacteria are innocuous and even important, there are also many bacterial infections that can cause harm to humans and other living beings.


GIDEON currently follows 129 bacterial diseases, tracing their impact across the globe.


Viral Microbes:


Viruses are submicroscopic infectious agents that are only able to reproduce inside living cells of other organisms. Viruses can infect all types of life forms including animals, humans, and even other microbes such as bacteria and archaea.


Viruses can be found in every single ecosystem on Earth and are believed to be the most numerous type of biological entities on our planet.


Because viruses reproduce differently from other microorganisms, the treatment of viral infections requires a different approach than bacterial infections.


GIDEON currently follows 110 viral diseases daily, in 235 countries and territories.


Fungal Microbes:


Fungi can be either single-celled or complex multicellular organisms. They can be found in many different ecosystems and habitats but are typically found on land in soil or organic plant matter.


Some fungi are parasitic on plants and can cause mildews, rusts, scabs, and cankers. Fungal infections can be a major issue for farmers and can lead to major financial losses. 


A very small number of fungi can cause diseases in animals and humans. For humans, these diseases most often afflict the skin and cause conditions such as ringworm, athletes’ foot, and thrush.


While many fungal diseases are considered minor, fungal invasions that have been allowed to develop into multi-system infections can be detrimental and even take decades to recover from. For example, many fungi that affect the lungs are particularly dangerous. 


One fungus, Candida aura, is particularly dangerous as it thrives in humans and can spread very quickly. It is also resistant to all three major antifungal medicines making outbreaks a serious situation.


GIDEON currently documents 26 fungal diseases across the globe.




Protozoa are single-celled organisms that come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Some protozoa, such as paramecium, are a fixed and complex shape while others, such as amoeba, are amorphous and can change their shape. 


Protozoa are mobile microbes and can move using tiny, hair-like cilia, long tails called flagella, and amoeboid movement where the protozoa change shape to propel themselves forward. 


There are some protozoa that are parasitic, meaning they feed off of other plants, animals, and even humans. These protozoa can also cause diseases in humans. For example, the protozoa plasmodium is responsible for causing malaria.


Some other particularly dangerous protozoan diseases include the infamous “brain-eating amoeba” Naeglaria fowleri and the incredibly serious Balamuthia mandrillaris, which carries a case-fatality rate of over 90%.


GIDEON currently catalogs information on 21 protozoan diseases.


Algae come in a variety of different structures. It can be single-celled, linked together in long chains, or made up of many cells. A majority of algae types live in fresh or seawater and either float freely or are attached to the bottom.


Many algae can also grow on soil or rocks if there is enough moisture present. Because algae contain chlorophyll, they are able to create their own food using the process of photosynthesis. 


Human consumption of seafood affected by harmful algal blooms can potentially cause illnesses such as Neurotoxic Shellfish Poisoning (NSP), Ciguatera Fish Poisoning (CFP), and Diarrhetic Shellfish Poisoning (DSP).


Algae that are members of the genus Prototheca are particularly harmful to humans, Prototheca blaschkeae being particularly dangerous. Protothecosis can cause diarrhea, weight loss, weakness, inflammation of the eye (uveitis), retinal detachment, ataxia, and seizures. Chlorellosis is a similar condition caused by an infection of Chlorella, a type of micro-algae that contains high amounts of chloroplasts.


GIDEON currently catalogs five species of Prototheca, complete with descriptions and where they’re typically found.

Where Do Microbiologists Work and Conduct Research?


Microbiology is a cornerstone of all science because microbes affect every aspect of life, human and beyond. Understanding the ways that microbes interact with each other and the world around us is key to finding solutions to problems affecting our environment, health, agriculture, and many more.


Because microbiology is at the core of science, microbiologists are key employees in a wide variety of job sectors and industries. Let’s explore just a few career options for microbiologists:


Healthcare and Epidemiology


It may come as no surprise that microbiologists are sought after in the healthcare and epidemiology industries. Perhaps the first association we have with microbes is that they cause illnesses such as the common cold and COVID-19. There will always be a demand for microbiologists seeking to truly understand the microbes that cause illness. In fact, it’s true that busy microbiology labs can detect diseases faster than slower labs. 


The first step in tackling issues caused by microorganisms is to fully understand how they operate. That said, once microbiologists understand how a particular microbe operates, they are then able to find ways to exploit its functions to create new treatments and therapies for various diseases and illnesses.


One path for a microbiologist is to become a biomedical scientist that works in hospitals or research laboratories. These scientists test blood, body tissue, and fluids to diagnose diseases and monitor treatments.


Microbiologists may also become clinical scientists that work in hospitals, medical school labs, and universities where they conduct research and offer scientific advice to medical staff.


Others may work on various infectious disease-causing microbes, such as tuberculosis or COVID-19, in an effort to develop effective vaccines.


Environmental Careers


Microbes play a huge role in Earth’s natural carbon and nitrogen nutrient cycles.


Microbiologists are also able to harness these microbes to use methane as a biofuel alternative that helps in the fight against climate change.


Microbiologists can also use the functions of microbes to clean up oil spills and other contaminated areas in a process called bioremediation. ​​Many well-known types of microbes, Bacteroidetes for example, have the potential to break down hydrocarbons. This is very useful in the process of bioremediation.


Some microbiologists study the way that microbes live alongside other living things in different habitats such as the Arctic and freshwater lakes. Others study the way that microbes function in an effort to better detect warning signs of pollution. Many microbiologists also work alongside engineers and technologists to develop sources of energy that are less harmful to the planet.


Food Security and Agriculture


Microbes are an essential part of the production of many foods using a process called fermentation. Beer, cheese, chocolate, yogurt, and many other foods rely on microbes during the production process. GIDEON has cataloged a number of these benevolent microbes in our database, including Lactobacillus fermentum, Bacillus subtilis, and Lactobacillus casei.


Many of these foods also contain probiotics and prebiotics that work with the millions of bacteria living in our guts to help our body absorb nutrients and prevent “bad” microbes from causing disease and illness.


Fungal microbes can lead to crop loss for farmers, but microbes can also be harnessed to control pests and keep weeds at bay.


Many microbiologists examine the role that microbes play in the soil used in agriculture. Others may focus on crop pests and diseases, figuring out ways to harness microbial functions to increase yields.


Microbiologists are also necessary for observing the ways that microbes can cause disease in the animals that humans consume. They are also key in “quality control,” making sure that the food, drink, and medicine that we consume are free of harmful microbes.

How Do I Become a Microbiologist?


There are a few paths that a person can follow to land a career in the field of microbiology. Entry-level jobs in microbiology typically require a bachelor’s degree in microbiology or a related field such as biology, natural resources, or any other degree that provides substantial coursework in microbiology.


Prospective microbiologists also require some fieldwork in a laboratory, which is typically a requirement in most undergraduate microbiology programs.


To conduct independent research, or work at a college or university, microbiologists in the United States are typically required to achieve a doctorate degree. The truth is the same for aspiring microbiologists in Canada. It’s very common for graduate students in microbiology to specialize in a subfield such as immunology or bacteriology. Doctorate programs typically require extensive classwork, laboratory research, and the completion of a thesis or dissertation.


In the United Kingdom and a majority of Europe, a prospective microbiologist will first need a degree in a relevant biological science to become a professional microbiologist. Many employers require a postgraduate qualification such as a Masters or Ph.D. To work as a microbiology researcher at a university in the UK, you’ll need a Ph.D. in a relevant area of microbiology.


Students in China must meet similar academic requirements before starting their careers as microbiologists. An undergraduate degree in a related biological science is necessary, then they must complete a microbiology-focused master’s program to work in research labs. Much like in the UK and the United States, students in China are typically required to achieve their doctorate degree in a microbiology concentration before working at a university.

Kimberly Hazel

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