Besides macroscopic plants and animals, microbes are
the major components of biological systems on this earth.Do you remember which Kingdoms among
the living organisms contain micro-organisms? Which are the ones that are only microscopic? Microbes are present everywhere – in soil, water, air, inside our bodies and that of other animals and plants. They are present even at sites where no other life-form could possibly exist–sites such as deep inside the geysers (thermal vents) where the temperature may be as high as 1000C, deep in the soil, under the layers of snow several metres thick, and in highly acidic environments. Microbes are diverse–protozoa, bacteria, fungi and microscopic plant viruses, viroids and also prions that are proteinacious infectious agents.
Microbes like bacteria and many fungi can be grown
on nutritive media to form colonies that can be seen with the naked eyes. Such cultures are useful in
studies on micro-organisms.
microbes cause a large number of diseases in human beings. They also cause diseases in animals and plants.
But this should not make you think that all microbes are harmful; several microbes are useful to man in diverse ways. Some of the most important contributions of microbes to human welfare are discussed in this chapter.
MICROBES IN HOUSEHOLD PRODUCTS :
You would be surprised to know that we use microbes or products derived from them everyday. A common example is the production of curd from milk. Micro-organisms such as Lactobacillus and others commonly called lactic acid bacteria (LAB) grow in milk and convert it to curd. During growth, the LAB produce acids that coagulate and partially digest the milk proteins. A small amount of curd added to the fresh milk as inoculum or starter contain millions of LAB, which at
suitable temperatures multiply, thus converting milk to curd, which also improves its nutritional quality by increasing vitamin B12. In our stomach too, the LAB play very beneficial role in checking diseasecausing microbes.
The dough, which is used for making foods such as dosa and idli is also fermented by bacteria. The puffed-up appearance of dough is due to the production of CO2
gas. Can you tell which metabolic pathway is taking place resulting in the formation of CO2? Where do you think the bacteria for these fermentations came from? Similarly the dough, which is used for making bread, is fermented using baker’s yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae). A number of traditional drinks and foods
are also made by fermentation by the microbes. ‘Toddy’, a traditional drink of some parts of southern India is made by fermenting sap from palms. Microbes are also used to ferment fish, soyabean and bambooshoots to make foods. Cheese, is one of the oldest food items in which microbes were used. Different varieties of cheese are known by their characteristic texture, flavour and taste, the specificity coming from the microbes used. For example, the large holes in ‘Swiss cheese’ are due to
production of a large amount of CO2 by a bacterium named Propionibacterium sharmanii. The ‘Roquefort cheese’ are ripened by growing a specific fungi on them, which gives them a particular flavour.
MICROBES IN INDUSTRIAL PRODUCTS :
Even in industry, microbes are used to synthesise a number of products valuable to human beings. Beverages and antibiotics are some examples.
Production on an industrial scale, requires growing microbes in very large vessels called fermentors
Fermented Beverages :
Microbes especially yeasts have been used from time immemorial for the production of beverages like wine, beer, whisky, brandy or rum. For this purpose the same yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae used for bread-making and commonly called brewer’s yeast, is used for
fermenting malted cereals and fruit juices, to produce ethanol. Do you recollect the metabolic reactions, which result in the production of ethanol by yeast? Depending on the type of the raw material used for fermentation and the type of processing (with or without distillation)
different types of alcoholic drinks are obtained.Wine and beer are produced without distillation whereas whisky, brandy and rum are produced by distillation of the fermented broth. The photograph of a fermentation plant .
Antibiotics produced by microbes are regarded as one of the most significant discoveries of the twentieth century and have greatly contributed towards the welfare of the human society. Anti is a Greek word that means ‘against’, and bio means ‘life’, together they mean ‘against life’ (in the context of disease causing organisms); whereas with reference to human beings, they are ‘pro life’ and not against. Antibiotics are chemical substances, which are produced by some microbes and can kill or retard the growth of other (disease-causing) microbes.
You are familiar with the commonly used antibiotic Penicillin. Do you know that Penicillin was the first antibiotic to be discovered, and it was a chance discovery? Alexander Fleming while working on Staphylococci bacteria, once observed a mould growing in one of his unwashed culture plates around which Staphylococci could not grow. He found out that it
was due to a chemical produced by the mould and he named it Penicillin after the mould Penicillium notatum. However, its full potential as an effective antibiotic was established much later by Ernest Chain and Howard Florey. This antibiotic was extensively used to treat American soldiers wounded in World War II. Fleming, Chain and Florey were awarded the Nobel Prize in 1945, for this discovery.
After Penicillin, other antibiotics were also purified from other microbes. Can you name some other antibiotics and find out their sources? Antibiotics have greatly improved our capacity to treat deadly diseases such as plague, whooping cough (kali khansi), diphtheria (gal
ghotu) and leprosy (kusht rog), which used to kill millions all over the globe. Today, we cannot imagine a world without antibiotics.
Chemicals, Enzymes and other Bioactive Molecules :
Microbes are also used for commercial and industrial production of certain chemicals like organic acids, alcohols and enzymes. Examples of acid producers are Aspergillus niger (a fungus) of citric acid, Acetobacter
aceti (a bacterium) of acetic acid; Clostridium butylicum (a bacterium) of butyric acid and Lactobacillus (a bacterium) of lactic acid.
Yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae) is used for commercial production of ethanol. Microbes are also used for production of enzymes. Lipases are used in detergent formulations and are helpful in removing oily stains from the laundry. You must have noticed that bottled fruit juices bought from the market are clearer as compared to those made at home. This is because the bottled juices are clarified by the use of pectinases and proteases. Streptokinase produced by the bacterium Streptococcus and modified by genetic engineering is used as a ‘clot buster’ for removing
clots from the blood vessels of patients who have undergone myocardial infaction leading to heart attack.
Another bioactive molecule, cyclosporin A, that is used as an immunosuppressive agent in organ-transplant patients, is produced by the fungus Trichoderma polysporum. Statins produced by the yeast Monascus purpureus have been commercialised as blood-cholesterol lowering agents. It acts by competitively inhibiting the enzyme responsible for synthesis of cholesterol.
MICROBES IN SEWAGE TREATMENT :
We know that large quantities of waste water are generated everyday in cities and towns. A major component of this waste water is human excreta.
This municipal waste-water is also called sewage. It contains large amounts of organic matter and microbes. Many of which are pathogenic. Have you ever wondered where this huge quantity of sewage or urban
waste water is disposed off daily? This cannot be discharged into natural water bodies like rivers and streams directly – you can understand why. Before disposal, hence, sewage is treated in sewage treatment plants (STPs) to make it less polluting. Treatment of waste water is done by the heterotrophic microbes naturally present in the sewage. This treatment is carried out in two stages:
Primary treatment : These treatment steps basically involve physical removal of particles – large and small – from the sewage through filtration and sedimentation. These are removed in stages; initially, floating debris
is removed by sequential filtration. Then the grit (soil and small pebbles) are removed by sedimentation. All solids that settle form the primary sludge, and the supernatant formsthe effluent. The effluent from the primary settling tank is taken for secondary treatment.
Secondary treatment or Biological treatment : The primary effluent is passed into large aeration tanks where it is constantly agitated mechanically and air is pumped into it. This allows vigorous growth of useful aerobic microbes into flocs (masses of bacteria associated with fungal filaments to form mesh like
structures). While growing, these microbes consume the major part of the organic matter in the effluent. This significantly reduces the BOD (biochemical oxygen demand) of the effluent. BOD refers to the amount of the oxygen that would be consumed if all the organic
matter in one liter of water were oxidised by bacteria. The sewage water is treated till the BOD is reduced. The BOD test measures the rate of uptake of oxygen by micro-organisms in a sample of water and thus, indirectly, BOD is a measure of the organic matter present in the water. The greater the BOD of waste water, more is its polluting potential.
Once the BOD of sewage or waste water is reduced significantly, the effluent is then passed into a settling tank where the bacterial ‘flocs’ are allowed to sediment. This sediment is called activated sludge. A small
part of the activated sludge is pumped back into the aeration tank to serve as the inoculum. The remaining major part of the sludge is pumped into large tanks called anaerobic sludge digesters. Here, other kinds
of bacteria, which grow anaerobically, digest the bacteria and the fungi in the sludge. During this digestion, bacteria produce a mixture of gases
such as methane, hydrogen sulphide and carbon dioxide. These gases form biogas and can be used as source of energy as it is inflammable.
The effluent from the secondary treatment plant is generally released into natural water bodies like rivers and streams.
You can appreciate how microbes play a major role in treating millions of gallons of waste water everyday across the globe. This methodology has been practiced for more than a century now, in almost all parts of the world. Till date, no manmade technology has been able to rival the microbial treatment of sewage.
You are aware that due to increasing urbanisation, sewage is being produced in much larger quantities than ever before. However the number of sewage treatment plants has not increased enough to treat such large quantities. So the untreated sewage is often discharged directly into rivers leading to their pollution and increase in water-borne diseases.
The Ministry of Environment and Forests has initiated Ganga Action Plan and Yamuna Action Plan to save these major rivers of our country from pollution. Under these plans, it is proposed to build a large number
of sewage treatment plants so that only treated sewage may be discharged in the rivers. A visit to a sewage treatment plant situated in any place near you would be a very interesting and educating experience.
MICROBES IN PRODUCTION OF BIOGAS :
Biogas is a mixture of gases (containing predominantly methane) produced by the microbial activity and which may be used as fuel. You have learnt that microbes produce different types of gaseous end-products during
growth and metabolism. The type of the gas produced depends upon the microbes and the organic substrates they utilise. In the examples cited in relation to fermentation of dough, cheese making and production of beverages, the main gas produced was CO2.. However, certain bacteria, which grow anaerobically on cellulosic material, produce large amount of methane along with CO2 and H2. These bacteria are collectively called methanogens, and one such common bacterium is Methanobacterium. These bacteria are commonly found in the anaerobic sludge during sewage treatment. These bacteria are also present in the rumen (a part of
stomach) of cattle. A lot of cellulosic material present in the food of cattle is also present in the rumen. In rumen, these bacteria help in the breakdown of cellulose and play an important role in the nutrition of cattle. Do you think we, human beings, are able to digest the celluose
present in our foods? Thus, the excreta (dung) of cattle, commonly called gobar, is rich in these bacteria. Dung can be used for generation of biogas, commonly called gobar gas.
The biogas plant consists of a concrete tank (10-15 feet deep) in which bio-wastes are collected and a slurry of dung is fed. A floating cover is placed over the slurry, which keeps on rising as the gas is produced in the tank due to the microbial activity. The biogas plant has an outlet, which is connected to a pipe to supply biogas to nearby houses. The spent slurry is removed through
another outlet and may be used as fertiliser. Cattle dung is available in large quantities in rural areas where cattle are used for a variety of purposes. So biogas plants are more often built in rural areas. The biogas thus produced is used for cooking and lighting. The picture of a biogas plant. The technology of biogas production
was developed in India mainly due to the efforts of Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI) and
Khadi and Village Industries Commission (KVIC). If your school is situated in a village or near a village, it would be very interesting to enquire if there are any biogas plants nearby. Visit the biogas plant and learn more about it from the people who are actually managing it.
MICROBES AS BIOCONTROL AGENTS :
Biocontrol refers to the use of biological methods for controlling plant diseases and pests. In modern society, these problems have been tackled increasingly by the use of chemicals – by use of insecticides and pesticides.These chemicals are toxic and extremely harmful, to human beings and animals alike, and have been polluting our environment (soil, ground water), fruits, vegetables and crop plants. Our soil is also polluted through our use of weedicides to remove weeds.
Biological control of pests and diseases: In agriculture, there is a method of controlling pests that relies on natural predation rather than introduced chemicals. A key belief of the organic farmer is that biodiversity
furthers health. The more variety a landscape has, the more sustainable it is. The organic farmer, therefore, works to create a system where the insects that are sometimes called pests are not eradicated, but instead
are kept at manageable levels by a complex system of checks and balances within a living and vibrant ecosystem. Contrary to the ‘conventional’ farming practices which often use chemical methods to kill both useful and harmful life forms indiscriminately, this is a holistic approach that seeks to develop an understanding of the webs of interaction between the
myriad of organisms that constitute the field fauna and flora. The organic farmer holds the view that the eradication of the creatures that are often described as pests is not only possible, but also undesirable, for without them the beneficial predatory and parasitic insects which depend upon them as food or hosts would not be able to survive. Thus, the use of
biocontrol measures will greatly reduce our dependence on toxic chemicals and pesticides. An important part of the biological farming approach is;to become familiar with the various life forms that inhabit the field,
predators as well as pests, and also their life cycles, patterns of feeding and the habitats that they prefer. This will help develop appropriate means of biocontrol.
The very familiar beetle with red and black markings – the Ladybird, and Dragonflies are useful to get rid of aphids and mosquitoes, respectively. An example of microbial biocontrol agents that can be introduced in order to control butterfly caterpillars is the bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis (often written as Bt). These are available in sachets as dried spores which are mixed with water and sprayed onto vulnerable plants
such as brassicas and fruit trees, where these are eaten by the insect larvae. In the gut of the larvae, the toxin is released and the larvae get killed. The bacterial disease will kill the caterpillars, but leave other insects
unharmed. Because of the development of methods of genetic engineering in the last decade or so, the scientists have introduced B. thuringiensis toxin genes into plants. Such plants are resistant to attack by insect pests. Bt-cotton is one such example, which is being cultivated in some states of our country.
A biological control being developed for use in the treatment of plant disease is the fungus Trichoderma. Trichoderma species are free-living fungi that are very common in the root ecosystems. They are effective
biocontrol agents of several plant pathogens.
Baculoviruses are pathogens that attack insects and other arthropods.The majority of baculoviruses used as biological control agents are in the genus Nucleopolyhedrovirus. These viruses are excellent candidates for species-specific, narrow spectrum insecticidal applications. They have been shown to have no negative impacts on plants, mammals, birds, fish
or even on non-target insects. This is especially desirable when beneficial insects are being conserved to aid in an overall integrated pest management (IPM) programme, or when an ecologically sensitive area is
MICROBES AS BIOFERTILISERS :
With our present day life styles environmental pollution is a major cause of concern. The use of the chemical fertilisers to meet the ever-increasing demand of agricultural produce has contributed significantly to
this pollution. Of course, we have now realised that there are problems associated with the overuse of chemical fertilisers and there is a large pressure to switch to organic farming – the use of biofertilisers.
Biofertilisers are organisms that enrich the nutrient quality of the soil. The main sources of biofertilisers are bacteria, fungi and cyanobacteria. You have studied about the nodules on the roots of leguminous plants
formed by the symbiotic association of Rhizobium. These bacteria fix atmospheric nitrogen into organic forms, which is used by the plant as nutrient. Other bacteria can fix atmospheric nitrogen while free-living in
the soil (examples Azospirillum and Azotobacter), thus enriching the nitrogen content of the soil.
Fungi are also known to form symbiotic associations with plants (mycorrhiza). Many members of the genus Glomus form mycorrhiza.The fungal symbiont in these associations absorbs phosphorus from soil and passes it to the plant. Plants having such associations show
other benefits also, such as resistance to root-borne pathogens, tolerance to salinity and drought, and an overall increase in plant growth and development. Can you tell what advantage the fungus derives from
Cyanobacteria are autotrophic microbes widely distributed in aquatic and terrestrial environments many of which can fix atmospheric nitrogen,e.g. Anabaena, Nostoc, Oscillatoria, etc. In paddy fields, cyanobacteria
serve as an important biofertiliser. Blue green algae also add organic matter to the soil and increase its fertility. Currently, in our country, a number of biofertilisers are available commercially in the market and farmers use these regularly in their fields to replenish soil nutrients and to reduce dependence on chemical fertilisers.