In recent years, thanks to advances in DNA sequencing technology, our ability to identify and study microbial ecosystems has changed our perspective on microbes and their contribution to human health.
No surprise, then, that some scientists are now turning their attention to the ways in which microbes play a crucial role in maintaining balance in the ecosystem. In fact, some microbiologists are now asserting that we need to pay as close attention to bacteria, fungi and viruses as we do to pandas, tigers and whales.
Microbial ecologist Gareth Griffith recently noted that only 2 per cent of papers in mainstream conservation journals are about microbes, and these usually refer to the dangers they pose to larger organisms. This is partly because we don’t yet have enough data on microbes to include them in the Convention on Biological Diversity, but it also reflects a bias towards life forms we can see.
Yet humans cannot live without microbes. Take fungi, for example. They are responsible for decomposing dead plant material, turning it into nutrient-rich soil. And recently isolated protective bacteria that live symbiotically with animals could prove a highly efficient tool for saving the world’s endangered species. Some microbes that live in mammalian digestive tracts – including ours – are crucial to maintaining health, while 90 per cent of the world’s plants are entirely interdependent with mycorrhizal fungi that live at their roots, increasing water supply to the plants and helping them to absorb essential nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus.
There’s no time to waste: as pollutants spread and climate and habitats change, we may lose species and the microbes that live in close symbiosis with them – and who knows how pivotal they might be for conservation, health care and beyond. Even the ancient microbes frozen 4 kilometres under Lake Vostok, Russia, are at risk – we don’t know how exposing them to life on the surface will harm them, or what the implications might be.
Griffith calls for the support of microbiologists and the conservation movement to create a Global Strategy for Microbial Conservation to study threatened microbes, a strategy to protect microbe-rich environments – particularly endangered soil habitats – and education programmes to counter negative attitudes towards microbes.