MICROBES: An Invisible Universe

microbesThe book titled MICROBES An Invisible Universe by Howard Gest was one of the most informative and interesting books I have read on the world of microbes. This book is 200 pages crammed full of detailed information about the history and the function of microorganisms, also known as microbes. The author, Dr. Howard Gest is Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Microbiology and Adjunct Professor of History and Philosophy of Science at Indiana University, Bloomington. Dr. Gest is widely recognized for his research on microbial physiology and metabolism.


The Ecology of microbes to one another and their surroundings is extraordinary with respect to the diversity of chemical and physical conditions that can be tolerated. Microbes thrive in extreme environments with regards to temperatures, high concentrations of salts and sugars, relative acidity, and with or without the presence of oxygen.


I’ve had a few conversation and read comments by scientists, individuals and organizations who promote the PLA industry claiming that biodegradation does not happen in landfill environments. One person I met while attending NPE2009 in Chicago was so bold as to make the statement that biodegradation does not happen anaerobically. I thought this was very interesting as the process for producing lactic acid (which is a required process for PLA – Polylactic Acid) is through the fermentation of corn starch. Fermentation is the biological process in which sugars and starches are converted into cellular energy in anaerobic conditions (a.k.a. anaerobic biodegradation). In fact, found on the BPI (Biodegradable Products Institute) website is an explanation on biodegradation. BPI quotes the following”.


“Myth: Biodegradable products are the preferred environmental solutions because waste simply biodegrades in the landfill.


Reality: Nothing biodegrades in a landfill because nothing is supposed to.”


Although some would like to believe we can simply will away microbes from digesting garbage in a landfill we have been unsuccessful up until this point. I think anyone who has attended a high school biology class would know that biodegradation through microbial activity happens basically everywhere on the planet and in either aerobic and anaerobic environments. The environmental laws we have passed requiring landfills to capture and burn the methane generated through the process of microbes breaking down organic materials in anaerobic conditions found in landfill environments is a testament that biodegradation does in fact happen in landfills.


Although it may have seemed like magic to our ancestors and still today to a rare few, the activities from microbes on our planet is so vital to our existence. As we continue to develop and evolve as a species it is hopeful that we can recognize and develop symbiotic relationships with these tiny organisms. One such relationship would be the creation of methane gases by allowing microbes to naturally digest our organic waste which is then used as a source for clean inexpensive energy. Our garbage becomes a source of microbial food which becomes a source for clean energy which reduces our reliance on fossil fuels, which helps to improve the environment.






By Danny Clark