I have the privilege of teaching microbiology to a group of 22 future medical professionals (mostly nurses) this summer. As the instructor for their one microbiology course, I have the ability to tweak what they learn in addition to the defined course basics. I also have the ability profoundly influence their view of the microbial world. So what do I want future medical professionals to understand about microbiology?
First, I want them to understand the vastness of the field. Microbiology includes viruses, bacteria, amoeba, yeast, prions… some of these are dangerous to humans, some helpful.
Second, microbes are incredibly diverse, adaptable, and creative. There is a virus for virtually every living creature. There are bacteria in antarctic oceans, in Yellowstone’s boiling acidic hot springs, in our guts, on our skin, in our kitchen sinks and shower drains, and they all are uniquely adapted to these environments. They also adapt much faster than humans or human technology can. With a generation time as low as 30 minutes in some cases, bacteria’s ability to respond to our efforts to destroy it is much more effective than our ability to respond to its newly developed defense mechanisms.
Third, microbes are worthy adversaries to our immune system. Our immune system is a complicated system with multiple redundancies designed to foil pathogens. Microbes find ways around all of its redundancies. Whether through turning the acid and hydrogen peroxide-filled death chambers of macrophages into hideouts where they can grow and multiply (Salmonella enterica), or through specifically targeting immune cells for destruction (HIV), microbes find a way (apologies to Jurassic Park).
Finally, many microbes are not “bad”. Yes, the bacterial viruses responsible for the symptoms of Diphtheria and Scarlet Fever are harmful, as is E. coli O157:H7 with its toxins which lead to kidney failure, but we have other E. coli living in our guts, making Vitamin K and helping make the gut too crowded for pathogens to easily take up residence. That bacterium in Yellowstone’s boiling hot springs? Scientists pulled out one of its enzymes to become the workhorse of molecular biology and enable early types of DNA sequencing, (Taq polymerase). Some of those viruses which infect bacteria? Possible non-chemical bacterial control solutions in food and food handling environments. Scientists have also found bacteria which can help digest the oil in oil spills, eat plastic in land fills, and degrade Uranium in toxic waste sites.
So what do I want them to walk away with, ultimately? Respect for the endlessly complex and crucially important microscopic world of microbes.