To the lay person, microbiology means the study of sinister, invisible 'bugs' that cause disease. As a subject, it generally only impinges on the popular consciousness in news coverage of the latest 'health scare'. It may come as something of a surprise therefore to learn that the vast majority of microorganisms coexist alongside us without causing any harm. Indeed, many perform vital tasks such as the recycling of essential elements, without which life on our planet could not continue, as we will examine in Chapter 16. Other microorganisms have been exploited by humans for our own benefit, for instance in the manufacture of antibiotics (Chapter 14) and foodstuffs (Chapter 17). To get some idea of the importance of microbiology in the world today, just consider the following list of some of the general areas in which the expertise of a microbiologist might be used:
• environmental science
• food and drink production
• fundamental research
• pharmaceutical industry
• genetic engineering.
The popular perception among the general public, however, remains one of infections and plagues. Think back to the first time you ever heard about microorganisms; almost certainly, it was when you were a child and your parents impressed on you the dangers of 'germs' from dirty hands or eating things after they'd been on the floor. In reality, only a couple of hundred out of the half million or so known bacterial species give rise to infections in humans; these are termed pathogens, and have tended to dominate our view of the microbial world.
In the next few pages we shall review some of the landmark developments in the history of microbiology, and see how the main driving force throughout this time, but particularly in the early days, has been the desire to understand the nature and cause of infectious diseases in humans.
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