Report outlines vision and recommendations for microbiology in the 21st Century

07/21/04

Washington, D.C. July 21, 2004 -- Microbes generate more than half the oxygen we breathe, excavate huge underground caverns, contribute mightily to the changes in our climate, and make up the largest mass of living things on earth. It is not an exaggeration to state that they are everywhere and often in very large numbers. Life originated with microbes and all of life is derived from microbes. Some microbes cause disease; others are essential in agriculture for food production or in industry for carrying out chemical transformation. Life without higher organisms is possible, but life without microbes is not. It's no wonder that ours has been called the planet of the microbes! Consequently, "the future of biological and planetary sciences lies in understanding the role microbes play in shaping this earth and its inhabitants," so says Moselio Schaechter of San Diego State University, one of the authors of a report of the American Academy of Microbiology, Microbiology in the 21st Century: Where Are We and Where Are We Going?

These striking realities of life of earth are not widely appreciated as yet. The public thinks of microbes as undesirable vermin "germs" that should best be eradicated. At present, concerns for bioterrorism alert the public to the hazards of agents of disease, but the public is not generally aware of the global importance of microbes. With notable exceptions, neither are many scientists in other fields. Commonly, the study of microbes is either neglected or is relegated to a special academic niche.

The report recommends that microbial sciences should be firmly integrated into pre-college and undergraduate educational curricula. "Since microbes are of fundamental importance to life, their activities must be taken into account in biological research and all biologists must have a solid background in microbial sciences." The report puts forth that microbiology should not be considered to be just another organismal biological science, but should be regarded as a foundation for all biologists, on the par with biochemistry, genetics, and the study of evolution. And much of this is true for geologists, metereologists, and other scientists.

These relationships should be reciprocal. Microbiologists stand much to gain from collaborating with scientists in other disciplines. The report recommends "To make the best progress, microbiology must reach across traditional departmental boundaries and become integrated with other disciplines." The science of microbiology should not be confined to microbiology departments in universities. Microbiologists should have positions in other departments such as chemical engineering, earth sciences, and, given the importance of microbes in shaping human affairs, the humanities. In some universities, such integrative steps have already taken place, and microbiologists have been appointed in a number of different departments. As Roberto Kolter of Harvard Medical School, another author of the report stated: "The Microbial Sciences Initiative at Harvard University provides an opportunity for academic departments that do not already have microbial scientists in their faculty to hire them. It also gives those faculty the opportunity to carry out interdisciplinary research."

The report recommends amending science curricula at the elementary, middle and high school levels to include lessons and laboratory exercises in microbiology and improving efforts to increase the microbial literacy of the general public.

The report is based on an Academy-sponsored colloquium that was held in Charleston, South Carolina, in September of 2003. Experts in the fields of bacteriology, virology, eukaryotic microbiology, medicine, biotechnology, molecular biology, and education met to discuss what new directions microbiology should take in the 21st century to best improve people's lives and the health of the planet.

A full copy of the report can be found online at www.asm.org/Academy/index.asp?bid=2093.

Source: Eurekalert & others

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