My first full-time job after obtaining my degree in Chemical Engineering started out intimidating, but who ever thought starting off a career in applied microbiology would be easy. As I move through the introductory period of my position – where learning all I can about the field is of top priority – the intimidating nature of the field has started to diminish. This is largely due to the number of tools that are now available to tackle the challenge of monitoring microbes. Applied microbiology has opened my eyes to the hidden world living just out of sight and the wide variety of situations where microbiological problems can impact our lives. I wish to share my experiences starting off in this exciting field with all of you.
Let’s start off with a few basics of microbiology. Microbiology is the study of tiny things, microorganisms to be exact. These little creatures are everywhere, but I didn’t anticipate their impact on the world. These microorganisms – including bacteria, fungi, algae, and many more can have both positive and negative effects on everyday life, which will be explained further down in this blog. So how do we test for these little creatures? Microorganisms are tested in a variety of ways, and while most traditional microbiological tests have involved culture-based technique, ATP testing is becoming a useful alternative to provide faster and more complete results. ATP (Adenosine Triphosphate) is used by active cells to store energy, therefore, measure the ATP and you can quantify the microbiological content in a specific sample. In case you are interested in learning about the differences between these testing methods I have provided a link here where you can see how 2nd generation ATP testing compares to the other microbiological testing methods.
So, first let’s look at the negative effects of these microorganisms in drinking water. In most instances chlorine, or some form of disinfectant, is used to destroy both the good and bad microorganisms within the system. This is to ensure the water being sent to our homes is safe to be consumed. Everybody has some understanding of a drinking water system as it affects so many of us, but there are many challenges that may be more unknown by the general public.
Corrosion is one issue that causes significant headaches but most people may not be aware of the link to microbiological growth. When you think of corrosion typically you think of chemical corrosion such as rust. However, biological corrosion causes problems for industries which use water within their process. Microorganisms are a lot like people, in the way that they love to settle down in communities that can supply shelter, food, and a place to grow. These communities are the bio-films found on the surfaces of objects that have access to water, such as pipes, membranes, and even that slimy rock we’ve all touched when swimming. These microorganism communities allow growth of cells while being protected by the layer of biofilm on the surface. The cells living in these communities slowly promote corrosion of the metal surfaces that they are in contact with. This causes a multitude of problems resulting in clogging pipes, limiting the flow of water in many applications and destroying the material. As you can see, little bugs lead to big problems.
Now, let’s take a step back and into a more positive direction, not all of these little guys are bad -they are actually critical for the wastewater treatment industry. This industry relies heavily on microorganisms to clean up the waste taken from homes through drains, toilets, and showers within communities, as well as large volumes of water used in industry. This water is brought to a wastewater treatment plant where – instead of trying to get rid of the bugs – they are trying to keep them alive and happy. Think of it as a safe haven for the good microbes. When they test for these bugs they want a high number to ensure the water comes out as clean as possible.
Moving forward with my career in microbiology, I am excited to be a witness to all the new innovative applications these microorganisms will be applied to in the future. As I continue to grow and learn about these amazing creatures I hope that I can help bring knowledge to the world with these blog posts.
Just remember, as the world grows don’t forget the little things.