The Role of Microbiology in Sustainable Development

Can microbes help save the world? Microbes know no borders, and are adept at adapting, surviving and thriving in extreme and constantly changing environments. While a fraction of microbes is pathogenic, the majority are beneficial or neutral and essential for life. ASM leadership hosted a virtual panel during the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) Science Summit discussing the role and contribution of science to the attainment of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The SDGs include 17 interconnecting global objectives identified by the UN as a "blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all" by 2030.

ASM CEO Stefano Bertuzzi was among a wide range of renowned speakers who addressed Summit attendees in the opening plenary on September 14. “Understanding the world of microbes is absolutely imperative either to curb dangerous effects or to harness their power for healthier life, for sustainable energy sources, for biodiversity, for tackling climate change, for solving hunger problems...,” he said. On September 27, distinguished members of ASM presented a panel delving into how microbes can be used to address these issues. Dr. Gemma Reguera, professor at Michigan State University, moderated the panel.

 

Panelists

  • Arturo Casadevall, M.D., Ph.D., Professor of Molecular Microbiology & Immunology, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health
  • Greetchen Díaz-Muñoz, Ph.D., Director of the Science Education Program and Community Partnerships, Ciencia Puerto Rico 
  • Tim Donohue, Ph.D., Ira Baldwin and UW Foundation Fetzer-Bascom Professor of Bacteriology, University of Wisconsin-Madison 
  • Jo Handelsman, Ph.D., Director of Wisconsin Institute for Discovery, University of Wisconsin- Madison
The UN Sustainability goals mirror many of ASM’s policy principles, and many are connected directly or indirectly to the microbial sciences. Some examples are highlighted below.  
 

Goal 2: Zero Hunger

Microbes are integral in food production. Some soil microbes aid in plant growth via their role in soil protection and fertilization, while others are destroyers of food (spoilage), crops and livestock, and still others are direct producers of food through fermentation. Microbes play roles in agriculture and food production that can impact crop health and potentially increase yield to help feed a growing global population, yet we must also be cautious of the large energy and environmental inputs required by many agricultural practices. To achieve changes, researchers need to obtain scientific knowledge to promote the activities of microbes in the soil to reduce the use of energy intensive chemicals like fertilizer; utilize microbes to help plants restore soil carbon; increase carbon storage by microbes on land and water; and engineer microbes to reduce the negative impacts of agricultural inputs.

Goal 3: Health and Wellbeing

As seen with the ongoing pandemic, infectious diseases caused by viruses, bacteria, fungi and other microbes continue to plague humanity. Those living in countries with limited resources and limited access to medical care suffer the most from neglected tropical diseases like malaria and Ebola. On the other hand, a third of the drugs we use, including numerous antibiotics (penicillin), cholesterol lowering and anticancer drugs, are made by microbes. Microbes are also factories for new drugs made by recombinant DNA technology and the source of proteins used in vaccines and numerous therapies. Gut microbes are key components of health as they assist in food digestion and are even responsible for the production of some of the vitamins that are essential for our health.

Goal 5: Gender Equality

Women may not have equal opportunities or access to scientific pursuits in low resource countries. However, even in the U.S. and many other regions around the globe, women are underrepresented in STEM fields and academia, despite having equal or higher levels of education than their male counterparts. Most of the food in the world is produced on farms of 2 hectares or less, many of which are managed by women with the joint goal of providing for their families. Knowledge of the microbial sciences and its role in the environment and agriculture can empower small farmers to earn a livable wage. Additionally, microbiologists should learn from Indigenous people who have farmed and managed their soil successfully for hundreds and sometimes thousands of years and, in return, give Indigenous people a voice in global management of resources. They are often the most deeply affected by the actions of state actors and should be empowered to influence the Earth’s, and their own, future.

Goal 6: Clean Water and Sanitation

Microbes can reduce pollution in water and thus improve water quality. The presence of certain microbes in water can lead to diseases with high mortality, such as cholera and childhood diarrhea. Soil is the largest water filter in the world, hence the importance of maintaining its health, integrity and microbial community. Conversely, some microorganisms have a beneficial impact on our water sources such as those that can break down oil or other dangerous toxins.

 

Goal 7: Affordable and Clean Energy

Microbes can have direct roles in the production of affordable clean energy through the generation of new types of fuels. Not only are researchers exploring new ways of getting electricity directly from microbes, but microbial catalysts can also help convert renewable materials into hydrocarbon fuels. Researchers are working to develop microbial scrubbers to remove pollutants from soil, ground water and other contaminated sites. While methane-producing microbes can also contribute to the input of greenhouse gases, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates that changes to agricultural practices could lower net carbon dioxide emissions ~100-1000 gtons by the end of the 21st century. Plugging microbes into a clean energy future around the world will provide a distributed and sustainable supply chain that is secure, resilient and responsive to the ever-evolving needs of citizens around the globe.

Goal 9: Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure

Microbes are essential for many industries – pharmaceuticals and food production, for example. As discussed, there is tremendous benefit to harnessing the power of microbes to convert renewable resources into electricity, fuels and chemicals. Advances in genomics have paved the way for a “green bioeconomy” based on these abilities. Deploying microbes for a green bioeconomy will require advances in genomics, systems and synthetic biology, computational sciences, machine learning and tech analysis. Such a future may increase productivity and quality of products from agriculture and spawn a circular economy that recycles abundant materials.

Goal 12: Responsible Consumption and Production

Microbes are responsible for both production and destruction of foodstuffs and are a key element in reducing waste from spoilage. Some microorganisms can degrade plastics, toxins, and agricultural waste, but some convert excess fertilizer to nitrous oxide, a potent greenhouse gas.

 

Goal 13: Climate Action

Microbes play key roles in the generation of some greenhouse gases as well as in carbon sequestration. The American Academy of Microbiology is making the role of microbes in climate change a major focus of its efforts. The Earth’s soil is the largest terrestrial reservoir of carbon, containing 3 times the amount of carbon that is in the entire atmosphere and 4 times as much as all the vegetation on Earth. Agricultural practices can build soil carbon, which has 2 important outcomes: carbon enriches and stabilizes soil making it more suitable for crop production and is sequestered from the environment where it would otherwise end up polluting the atmosphere as greenhouse gases. Investment in microbial systems can lower greenhouse gas emissions and renewable resources into low-carbon and low-cost electricity, fuels, chemicals and materials.

Goal 14 & 15: Life in Water and Life on Land

Microbes are critical contributors to both the health and disease of ecosystems and thus are essential components for life below water and on land. One gram of soil contains as many bacteria as there are people on Earth. Soil bacteria promote the health of our crops by increasing drought tolerance, protecting plants from disease and providing nutrients necessary for growth. Attention to the microbial sciences can help to stop land degradation and the loss of biodiversity in water, soil, land and air.

The UNGA Science Summit was organized by nonprofit group ISC to raise awareness among political leaders about the importance of science in policymaking and in solutions to global challenges. “All these goals require international collaboration and partnership,” Bertuzzi recognized. Sustainability is a global initiative, just as microbiology is a global science. Bertuzzi encouraged UN leaders to work together and called for sharing of scientific knowledge.


Author: Ashley Jones Robbins, MELP

Ashley Jones Robbins, MELP
Ashley Jones Robbins, MELP is the Advocacy Communications Coordinator at the American Society for Microbiology.