If you’ve ever studied concepts related to the molecular processes of organisms or the steps involved in everything genetics-related, chances are you’ve studied a type of biology called microbiology.
Molecular biology focuses on the biological processes, structures and functions of organisms on a microscopic scale. The study of microbiology involves the interaction of many different types of fields within the biological sciences such as ecology, medical microbiology or other related biomedical areas.
Being an expert in this dynamic field can mean being a researcher into genomic processes or pathogenesis, developing practical policies with regard to infectious diseases or biochemical products, sequencing genomes, and producing new antimicrobial products.
If you're interested in learning how microbiology has changed the study of the animal kingdom, check out the biological science of zoology.
What is Microbiology?
If you're studying or have studied biology, surely you have studied the concepts that make up the three main branches of this science: botany, zoology and microbiology.
Organismal biology developed more recently in comparison to the other two branches. This science, more commonly referred to as microbiology, focuses on the study of microorganisms.
The field's history can be traced back to the 17th century; it concerns testing the structure and functions of the most common microorganisms, like bacteria and fungi.
Antoine van Leeuwenhoek is considered the father of microbiology.
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He was everything but a scientist. His first venture, while still a lad, was as a draper. After a year or two apprenticing, he opened his own shop in his hometown of Delft and must have earned a fair reputation because he soon became involved in municipal politics.
Somehow, politics evolved into an interest in lens making, which led him to contemplate life under a microscope and, as the saying goes, the rest is history.
For students who dither over which direction to take in their studies: while we don't exactly recommend the roundabout path taken by Mr van Leeuwenhoek, you can still take a few optional detours to find which particular branch of microbiology suits you best.
This non-scientist with a clearly scientific mind is credited to have published history's first treatise on microbiology. His drawings and observations made up a body of work that was eventually published by the British Royal Society.
Mr van Leeuwenhoek's work, which analysed everything from protozoa to the bacteria of animals, inspired many other experiments and observations.
Many who visited him, all agog about the discoveries he had made and hoping to see for themselves the tiny world he so eloquently described left rather disappointed that Mr van Leeuwenhoek only permitted them to look through his more inferior microscopes.
Another pioneering microscope user, Robert Hooke, grew a bit spiteful that all of the notoriety was aimed at his Dutch counterpart. The Englishman went so far as to accuse van Leeuwenhoek of holding a virtual monopoly on microscopic discovery.
Apocryphal tales such as these point to the idea that Antoine van Leeuwenhoek was not necessarily the type of fellow who would embrace like-minded individuals and he definitely wouldn't suffer competitors.
Still, thanks to him, the discipline of microbiology took root, becoming a legitimate field of study that changed during the 19th century, mostly because of two innovations that not only bettered life in that era but continue to play a role in our daily lives in the present.
Louis Pasteur found that repeatedly heating and cooling milk resulted in any bacteria in the milk dying off. That process was born of his curiosity to understand everything about bacteria. Mr Pasteur's process bears his name - pasteurisation. It is still used today to treat many commercial foods and drinks.
Interesting side note: Pasteur is now considered infamous for the trickery he resorted to in outdoing Jean Toussaint, a rival scientist who was working on a vaccine for anthrax.
The second major evolution in biological study is attributed to Robert Koch.
A contemporary of Pasteur, Koch also concerned himself with the experimentation and analysis of bacteria. Koch, at the time, wrote and published work that focused on microorganisms that caused diseases in both the animal and the plant kingdom.
As remarkable as those discoveries were, the technological advancements of the 20th and 21st centuries forever changed the field of microbiology.
This fledgling science has expanded as technology improved, making both the examination of microorganisms and devising better strategies to combat microorganic harm possible.
Modern microbiology is a field that covers a vast array of subjects, including the study of aquatic animals.
The discipline focuses on solving the world's most urgent problems, from examining metabolic and nutritional information to finding cures for dangerous infectious diseases.
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What Are the Types of Microbiology?
The 'study of tiny animals', as the discipline's founding father called it, is broad... for all that it involves studying organisms that can't be seen with the naked eye.
Long gone are the days when any given fluid, from pond water to blood would take its turn under the microscope, just to see what lives in it. Of course, that leaves out students in their first year at university whose challenge is to examine organisms and describe them in detail, much as you did in secondary school.
Once you make it all the way through school, you will surely want to put all of your newly-gained knowledge to work, won't you?
In the next segment, we discuss the type of jobs you can do with specific microbiology degrees; for now, let's dissect the four main types of microbiology you might study.
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In this field, biologists study organisms to understand them better rather than to devise ways to control them and put them to work - maybe finding ways to use one bacteria to keep another type of bacteria from spreading.
If you want to become an immunologist or virologist, a scientist who studies immune systems and viruses, respectively, pure microbiology would be the field for you.
Exotic-sounding sub-specialities such as phycology (the study of microscopic algae), protozoology (the study of protozoa) and parasitology (the study of parasitic microorganisms) also fall under the heading of pure microbiology.
This is the type of biology that people are the most familiar with and the one field that most hope to work in. It entails the study of microorganisms with the intent of using them - applying them to solve the most pressing issues facing humanity.
Medical microbiologists investigate how bacteria, viruses and fungi harm humans and how they could be used to help us. Industrial microbiologists study organisms from the perspective of how to use them to develop new products.
For instance, a fairly recent discovery of oil-eating microbes has helped to clean up oil spills in the ocean while the long-ago discovery of probiotic bacteria has improved humans' digestion of dairy products, among other foods.
If neither of those areas excite you, why not look into pharmaceutical microbiology or microbial biotechnology? They too are considered applied microbiology.
How do microbes behave in their natural environment? How do they interact with larger organisms? These are two questions that environmental/agricultural microbiologists seek to answer.
Agricultural microbiologists study the relationship between microbes and their hosts.
Imagine a lovely old tree suddenly growing fungi. What brought that growth on? How damaging will it be to the host organism? How excitable are the spores and how widely do they proliferate? Will they only feast on one type of tree or are all trees within its reach in danger of infection?
By contrast, environmental microbiologists take a larger view. Instead of focusing on a single host species, microbe or contamination event, they consider the impact of large groups of diverse microbes on a collection of hosts.
For an effective visual, you might picture the range of microorganisms that may inhabit wholesale biological waste.
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Unless you live blissfully unaware of current events, you've surely heard the terms 'superbug' and 'antibiotic-resistant bacteria'. They didn't spring up from out of thin air; such microbes evolved to stymie our best efforts at stymieing them.
Evolutionary microbiologists - specifically, generation microbiologists study the relationships between today's microbes and their ancestors to determine how and why they evolved.
If tracing a microbe's DNA is not for you, you might consider practising microbial taxonomy: discovering, classifying and naming microbes. You might also enjoy systems microbiology, a sort of bridge between systems biology and microbiology.
All but pure microbiology are considered applied microbiology fields because, one way or another, the goal is to find ways to employ these organisms to control and benefit the wider world as well as humanity.
Now that you have the four main types of microbiology clearly outlined, you only need to know about microbiology jobs.
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Let's say you’ve been studying microbiology. Would you like to know about your career prospects?
Being a scientist in this discipline is as rewarding as it is diverse.
Here, we give some of the important information on the professions, as well as the possible salaries and educational requirements involved in majoring in microbiology.
Microbiology and cell biology, while different specialities, incorporate aspects many different biological fields of study. Both of these branches of biology offer diverse professional paths, from medicine - for which a degree in medical biology would suit, to work in government, perhaps analysing epidemiology and infectious organisms.
To work in the specific field microbiology that interests you, you have to know which degree programme to apply for.
For example, while entry-level work as a biology technician in a laboratory will often only require a bachelors degree, some medical and clinical laboratory technologists require a masters degree.
Finances can be an important factor in informing your decision to pick up or continue studying microbiology.
You shouldn't consider yourself a skinflint for looking at potential earnings before engaging in further study. We all know how costly higher education is and, the longer you spend in school, the greater the cost and the later you start earning. 'Provident' would be a better word to describe such thinkers...
Should you aim for a masters in microbiology, you could earn around £60,000 with job titles related to microbiologist and up to £110,000 a year as a natural science manager. The difference in earning potential demonstrates that you should choose your graduate field of study carefully
This huge variation between microbiology career salaries requiring a masters degree begs the question: what are the salary ranges for undergraduate microbiologists and those requiring a doctorate-level degree?
Environmental microbiology deals with understanding the impacts of microorganisms, including bacteria, parasites, viruses and fungi on the environment that they inhabit and our environment as a whole.
If you’re interested in the branch of microbiology that deals with the great outdoors, finding work in public health and policy-making can be a satisfying and rewarding career.
If such a career entices you and you're planning your university study programme, you might consider including courses in Physiology and Immunology.
Clinical and Medical Laboratory Work
While pursuing a career in the medical field is often seen as laborious and expensive, it is intellectually stimulating and eventually, financially rewarding. Graduate and postgraduate students often aspire to careers involving microbiology's role in medicine.
Working in fields related to clinical microbiology can lead you to work on innovative experiments. These experiments try to solve some of the world’s most pressing disease-related issues and come up with novel medical treatments.
With such a career, you have a shot at being a top earner in the field of microbiology, and maybe even something equivalent to a biology rock star - if that's your thing.
If you’re interested in clinical and medical lab work, see if your university offers courses in:
Biochemistry and Biophysics
Entry-level positions in these fields usually require at least a masters degree, while senior positions in independent research facilities often call for candidates to have a doctorate degree.
This profession involves a lot of research that integrates biology with mathematics, chemistry and physics.
If you have interests in all these fields, from better understanding biological processes to creating nanotechnology for diabetes patients, this should be the career path for you.
To get started, talk with your university course adviser to see if you can include Biotechnology and Bioinformatics classes into your degree plan.
Are you interested in biochemistry or clinical work? Find out how far you can go with your Masters in Biology...
How to Study Microbiology
Studying microbiology can be as difficult as it is interesting, which is why many people struggle to find the motivation to start or continue studying it.
However, because microbiology is a field that touches on every biological process of individuals and the world around them, it can be extremely rewarding to understand even the most basic of concepts within the discipline – everything from the microbial life of an organism, to the cellular and genetic characteristics of microorganisms.
Here are some basic concepts of microbiology that you may be currently learning or need help remembering. These concepts are important as they form the foundation for understanding what exactly microbiology seeks to understand and how it impacts the field of science.
Pathogen A pathogen in microbiology refers to a biological agent that either cases an illness or disease to its host body. The process by which they disrupt the host’s normal functions involves mainly affecting the physiology of the animal or plant it has invaded. Combating pathogens involves a series of vaccinations, antibiotics and fungicides.
Genomes are very important to an organism’s life – in fact, it is the very building block of it. An organisms’ genome is the complete set of Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid, or DNA. This includes, of course, all of an organism’s genes, which hold the information used in the very building and maintaining of the organism itself.
Microbes While it might sound dangerous at first glance, humans are actually hosts to millions of microbes, more commonly known as microorganisms. These microorganisms include bacteria, viruses and fungi.
While most bacteria do not pose a threat to organisms, the majority of viruses are responsible for disease. Viruses can be mild, such as the ones that cause colds, or extremely serious and dangerous, like AIDS and COVID.
Fungi are evenly split between beneficial and dangerous qualities. While some edible fungi like mushrooms have positively contributed to human subsistence, some fungi can cause diseases.
The poorly-named ringworm, which is not a worm at all, is a good example of a harmful fungus. By itself, it does not kill but it does open the door for other organisms that can.
Bacteria are single-cell organisms that can survive in the most extreme environments.
As previously mentioned, the majority of bacteria are not harmful to humans. In fact, there is a vast array of bacteria that actually help many of the processes both in nature and in organisms take place.
There has been much discussion lately about humans' gut biome - the bacteria living in our intestines that keep our digestive systems functioning. You might have heard about the importance of feeding the good bacteria in your gut and rebuilding your gut biome after a bout of diarrhoea.
There are some diseases caused by bacteria but less than 1 per cent of all bacteria types causes disease in humans, animals and plants.
Some examples of bacteria-induced disease include bacterial meningitis, necrotising fasciitis - a condition where the skin around a wound turns black and dies, and pneumonia. More recently, strains of MRSA bacteria - those resistant to the most powerful antibiotics available, have provoked debate about how to counter these superbugs.
If ever there were a time to become a microbiologist, now would be it! We need everyone possible with all the skills they possess to think our way out of this predicament.
One way that biologists and the medical community in general hope to stem the rise of the superbugs is by curbing antibiotic use.
Not so long ago, it was common for doctors to prescribe an antibiotic even if the patient presented with a viral condition such as bronchitis. Today, we know that overuse of antibacterial medicines have caused bacteria to evolve, making our infection-fighting arsenal ineffective.
Parasites are difficult to define because there are many living organisms – animals and plants – that can be characterised as parasitic.
Parasites are organisms that rely on other organisms for food, protection and propagation. While parasitic relationships can be symbiotic - providing benefits to the host and the parasite, most such relationships incur either disease or injury to the host.
"Wait a minute" you might think, "what about that gut bacteria mentioned earlier? Don't they feed off of us?"
The bacteria in your gut is a prime example of symbiosis: they keep us healthy, process our food and can even synthesise a range of vitamins. Contrast all the good that the colonies of bacteria living in our gut do with the damage done by a single tick bite.
Lyme disease, transmitted to humans by the bite of a tick infected with the Borrelia Burgdorferi bacteria can be a debilitating condition that causes an array of symptoms, from its characteristic bull's-eye rash to lingering fatigue, mental confusion and, if left untreated, death.
Oddly enough, many people are afraid of going into a field or being anywhere near a bale of hay for fear that they will be bitten by a tick but they have no qualms about not washing their hands regularly.
Bacteria don't just live in our gut, they also live on our skin... and these bacteria are not necessarily beneficial.
Ticks have jaws strong enough to bite through a deer's hide so they have no problem injecting tender human skin with potentially deadly bacteria; otherwise, the unfriendly bacteria that lives on the outside of our bodies might find it's way in and wreak havoc!
As a microbiologist, you can conduct research into defeating harmful bacteria while protecting good bus that we need to live. You can become a part of an international study group that monitors the effects of various microorganisms in various parts of the world, from the sulphuric mud pits at Yellowstone Park in the US.
Or you may decide to see to the general health and welfare of your fellow Brits by applying your skills to combat our obesity epidemic. Could our gut bacteria really have that much to do with how much we weigh?
Don't all of these possibilities make you interested in learning more about the many different disciplines within biology?