The Future of Microbiology
The Future of Microbiology
As the preceding sections have shown, microbiology has had a
profound influence on society. What of the future? Science writer
Bernard Dixon is very optimistic about microbiology’s future for
two reasons. First, microbiology has a clearer mission than do
many other scientific disciplines. Second, it is confident of its
value because of its practical significance. Dixon notes that microbiology
is required both to face the threat of new and reemerging
human infectious diseases and to develop industrial technologies
that are more efficient and environmentally friendly.
What are some of the most promising areas for future microbiological
research and their potential practical impacts? What
kinds of challenges do microbiologists face? The following brief
list should give some idea of what the future may hold:
1. New infectious diseases are continually arising and old
diseases are once again becoming widespread and
destructive. AIDS, hemorrhagic fevers, and tuberculosis are
excellent examples of new and reemerging infectious
diseases. Microbiologists will have to respond to these
threats, many of them presently unknown.
2. Microbiologists must find ways to stop the spread of
established infectious diseases. Increases in antibiotic
resistance will be a continuing problem, particularly the
spread of multiple drug resistance that can render a
pathogen impervious to current medical treatment.
3. Research is needed on the association between infectious
agents and chronic diseases such as autoimmune and
cardiovascular diseases. It may be that some of these
chronic afflictions partly result from infections.
4. We are only now beginning to understand how pathogens
interact with host cells and the ways in which diseases
arise. There also is much to learn about how the host resists
5. Microorganisms are increasingly important in industry and
environmental control, and we must learn how to use them
in a variety of new ways. For example, microorganisms can
(a) serve as sources of high-quality food and other practical
products such as enzymes for industrial applications,
(b) degrade pollutants and toxic wastes, and (c) be used as
vectors to treat diseases and enhance agricultural
productivity. There also is a continuing need to protect food
and crops from microbial damage.
6. Microbial diversity is another area requiring considerable
research. Indeed, it is estimated that less than 1% of the
earth’s microbial population has been cultured. We must
develop new isolation techniques and an adequate
classification of microorganisms, one which includes those
microbes that cannot be cultivated in the laboratory. Much
work needs to be done on microorganisms living in extreme
environments. The discovery of new microorganisms may
well lead to further advances in industrial processes and
enhanced environmental control.
7. Microbial communities often live in biofilms, and these
biofilms are of profound importance in both medicine and
microbial ecology. Research on biofilms is in its infancy; it
will be many years before we more fully understand their
nature and are able to use our knowledge in practical ways.
In general, microbe-microbe interactions have not yet been
8. The genomes of many microorganisms already have been
sequenced, and many more will be determined in the coming years.
the genome is related to cell structure and what the
minimum assortment of genes necessary for life is.
Analysis of the genome and its activity will require
continuing advances in the field of bioinformatics and the
use of computers to investigate biological problems.
9. Further research on unusual microorganisms and microbial
ecology will lead to a better understanding of the
interactions between microorganisms and the inanimate
world. Among other things, this understanding should
enable us to more effectively control pollution. Similarly, it
has become clear that microorganisms are essential partners
with higher organisms in symbiotic relationships. Greater
knowledge of symbiotic relationships can help improve our
appreciation of the living world. It also will lead to
improvements in the health of plants, livestock, and humans.
10. Because of their relative simplicity, microorganisms are
excellent subjects for the study of a variety of fundamental
questions in biology. For example, how do complex cellular
structures develop and how do cells communicate with one
another and respond to the environment?
11. Finally, microbiologists will be challenged to carefully
assess the implications of new discoveries and
technological developments. They will need to
communicate a balanced view of both the positive and
negative long-term impacts of these events on society.