Microbes: Minions or Masters of the Universe?

Microbes were once seen as agents of disease. Now we know that most are beneficial. They provide the oxygen we breathe, the water we drink and the food we eat. They help make soils and keep them fertile, transform dead matter back into the world of the living, wear down mountains, build up cliffs, regulate the climate and drive the nutrient and energy cycles that make and sustain our bodies and the living world.

Some may attack us, and we strive to keep them at bay. Some we haven’t discovered yet, let alone understand what they do. Two thirds of life on our planet is invisible but we only understand a fraction of what these organisms do. What we do know is that microbes are essential partners on many levels, and an essential part of life on this planet.

Questions to ask when exploring our exhibit

  • If they were all to disappear would we disappear too?
  • How many microbes can you uncover?
  • How many microbial ‘jobs’ can you find?
  • Which ones surprised you the most?
  • Which of these ‘jobs’ have benefitted you today?

How our view of microbes has changed over time

  • 1600s: Invisible ‘animalcules’ first revealed following the invention of the microscope
  • 1800s: Some were found to cause disease and interest (mainly in killing them) grew 
  • 1970s: New techniques revealed a massive new group of invisible life forms
  • 1990s: A revolutionary technique, metagenomics, revealed multitudes of microbes performing myriad roles – everywhere
  • Today: A growing realisation that microbes are essential on all levels: for the planet’s health, for our health