Microbes Rule!

2014 Volume VI

Introduction by Paul E. Turner, Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology

Microbes, especially bacteria and viruses, dominate our planet. These microscopic creatures evolved billions of years before other organisms, and changed the oxygen composition in the atmosphere, making evolution of other life forms possible. Microbes are still vital players in the ecosystem, helping to regulate global photosynthesis levels, and contributing to earth's water cycle. It is increasingly apparent that the microbes associated with our bodies – the human microbiome that outnumbers our own cells 10 to 1 – impact your health in amazing ways, such as allowing you to maintain a healthy immune system and perhaps even affecting traits like your body weight. Microbes can invade the genomes of other organisms too; the Human Genome Project revealed that virus-derived genes comprise perhaps 10 percent or more of the human genome. The negative impact of some microbes on our health and economy is also dramatic, due to their huge disease toll in humans and in domesticated plants and animals. Microbial diseases can be devastating, causing extreme morbidity and mortality that have literally changed the course of human history. However, scientists and engineers have discovered that microbes can be harnessed in useful ways to solve many of our most difficult problems. Long ago, humans "domesticated" microbes for production of foods, such as yogurt, cheese, bread, and alcoholic beverages. More recently, we have used beneficial microbes and their naturally and artificially-engineered products to exert warfare (biocontrol) against harmful microbes that would otherwise devastate our food supply, thus protecting multi-billion-dollar food industries from collapse. In addition, microbes are being developed to treat deadly diseases of humans, such as auto-immune disorders and cancers. There is even the possibility that microbes will help solve society's energy problems associated with our ever-expanding population size, through creation of biofuels and even longer-life batteries. Microbes rule the planet, affecting our lives for better and for worse. This seminar explored the fascinating world of microbiology, and included biology and chemistry teachers of all grade levels, who used the subject matter to enrich their classroom units on a wide variety of biology and chemistry topics.

The resulting units were diverse, reflecting the varied interests and backgrounds of the Fellows. Phil Carver develops an integrated science unit for middle school students, where microbes and their fascinating traits are used to help illustrate the importance of microbes in a wide variety of science topics, ranging from human biology to ocean ecosystems. Troy Holiday's unit takes high school students on a journey to understand the longstanding war between humans and viruses, emphasizing how this evolutionary "arms race" has affected the biology of both humans and viruses. Maria Orton's unit merges high school chemistry and biology, explaining the downside of humans living in modern ultraclean environments and how this explains the rise in allergies, and drawing parallels between atoms that rearrange in a chemical reaction and microbe-immune cell interactions that lead to allergic responses. Valerie Schwarz's unit emphasizes exploration of plant-microbe interactions by elementary school students, explaining how microbes are essential for plant health and the overall health of soil ecosystems. Arcadia Sloan's unit for high school students emphasizes the impact of infamous microbes, especially bubonic plague bacteria and smallpox virus, in shaping the course of human history, including changes in medical treatments, farming practices and even religious beliefs. Jolene Smith's unit is designed for fifth graders, concerning the historical impact of tuberculosis and influenza diseases on Native American populations, and how microbes challenge the ability to maintain the Circle of Life: the daily living of cultural practices and maintenance of good health. Vanessa Vitug's unit engages high school students to understand how both beneficial and harmful microbes interact with the integumentary (skin) system, and that skin provides an essential barrier between humans and the pathogenic microbes that can infect us. Kathleen Tysiak's unit for high school students examines the essential role of the human immune system in combating disease pathogens, the continued difficulty of developing drugs that target HIV, and the future of the human species in our ongoing battle against disease agents.

Paul E. Turner