The Power of Microbial Sciences to Change the World

The Power of Microbial Sciences to Change the World

If the years following the emergence of SARS-CoV-2 have taught us anything, it’s that microbes are everywhere and relentless in their pursuits. Microbes and humans are connected. Nothing we do takes place in a vacuum.

Emergence of a Novel Pathogen

COVID-19 came as no surprise to the microbiology community; we knew a pandemic was imminent. The only real question was which would come first, a pandemic driven by antimicrobial resistance (AMR), or one caused by a highly pathogenic respiratory virus, like influenza or a coronavirus.

The answer manifested in late 2019, when several cases of “pneumonia-like” illness of unknown etiology were reported in Wuhan, China. Less than 3 months later, on March 11, 2020, after more than 118,000 cases in 114 countries and 4,291 deaths, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic.

For many microbiologists, the pandemic instilled a unique sense of purpose—it was a chance to put our training to use on a scale unprecedented in any of our lifetimes. While the world waited with bated (i.e., masked) breath, microbiologists went to work getting acquainted with and developing a vaccine to combat this new foe, in record-breaking time.

Challenges for the Scientific Community

People scrolling on their phones. News travels fast! Online information is easily consumable via personal devices.
Source: iStock
What we were woefully unprepared for was the manner in which fear, misinformation and animosity would outpace the spread of the virus. At the end of the day, in the age of 24-hour news, digital publication and social media, “trust me, I’m a microbiologist,” just wasn’t enough to overcome fear of the unknown.

As a society, we had become lulled into a false sense of comfort with “the way things work” when it comes to modern medicine, and it was scary to confront the reality that we were more vulnerable than day-to-day operations might suggest. A deadly pathogen that we knew nothing about? That was everyone’s nightmare.

Public health microbiologist conducting COVID-19 testing.A public health microbiologist conducting COVID-19 testing.
Source: Flickr
Furthermore, by the time we realized that SARS-CoV-2 existed, our microscopic adversary had gained a significant head start, and humanity was forced to take a collective pause while the scientific and medical communities played catch-up. Thanks to the heroic efforts and unparalleled collaboration of scientists around the globe, pre-existing gaps in knowledge closed at breakneck speed. But in a world of instant gratification, threatened by an unrelenting opponent, the pause was taxing.

Now, a mere 3.5 years later, COVID-19 has left an indelible footprint on society, which will forever alter the landscape of individual lives, as well as local and global communities.

We Are All Connected—The Microbes That Bind Us

ASM President Colleen Kraft.ASM President Colleen Kraft
Source: American Society for Microbiology
For ASM President Colleen Kraft, the COVID-19 pandemic has been a pivotal time. “The last couple of years have deepened my passion not only for what I do, but also who I do it for,” she explained. “Microbiology is foundational to global and public health, and it is unequivocally a social equity issue.”

It is true: microbes and society are so intricately interwoven that neither can be isolated from the other, and if we are to advance professionally and personally from the past years’ events, the symbolism and deeper implications of this fact cannot be overlooked.

That is why Kraft convened a distinguished lineup of guest speakers at the ASM Microbe 2023 President's Forum in June: to discuss topics that are most pressing in the field of microbiology.

Pandemic Preparedness and Global Health

John Nkengasong.John Nkengasong, Ph.D.
Source: American Society for Microbiology
On the forum’s roster was Ambassador John Nkengasong, Ph.D., who heads the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) and is the first-ever African leader to hold the position of U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator and Special Representative for Global Health Diplomacy at the U.S. Department of State. Throughout his career, Nkengasong has made significant contributions to global public health, including leading the COVID-19 response in Africa and securing 400 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines during the height of the pandemic.

In 2021, Nkengasong was recognized as one of TIME magazine's 100 Most Influential People and received the Virchow Prize for Global Health for his dedication to improving the health and well-being of the world's most vulnerable people. His work demonstrates that health equity has profound influence, and he brings a deeply informed perspective to discussions about pandemic preparedness.

“Because we are all connected, we cannot talk about pandemic preparedness without talking about global health,” Kraft explained. "When it comes down to it, none of us are immune to the consequences of each other’s actions because we share time and space with one another."

Few things teach us as clearly as microbes that what happens to one of us ultimately happens to all of us. Simply by breathing, we are impacting our neighbors (be they human, animal, plant or microbe) and our environments.

Which means we must find a way to coexist, and to do so in a manner that considers individual processes and needs, even if they are invisible to the naked eye. These concepts can be applied to one-on-one interactions, and they can be extrapolated on a global public health scale.

"If a neighboring nation is experiencing a concerning infectious disease outbreak, alarm bells should be ringing for the rest of the world," said Kraft. "We should all be thinking, 'how can we help contain this threat?'”

Stewarding Microorganisms to Change the World

Still, not all microbes are threatening. In fact, many are at the heart of our most innovative solutions and groundbreaking research. According to Kraft, from bioremediation techniques that work to create a sustainable economy, to medical and industrial applications that transform microorganisms (and their metabolites) into high-value products, microorganisms must be treated as a valuable resource.

Folasade Tolulope Ogunsola, Ph.D.Folasade Tolulope Ogunsola, Ph.D.
Source: American Society for Microbiology
“I believe microbes can change the world, but how we steward them will directly determine whether we are changing it for worse or for better,” Kraft explained. That means keeping a handle on existing resources, protecting resources that are consumable, developing renewable options and carefully stewarding resources, like antibiotics, that if overused, underused and/or misused can drive AMR. To speak more about stewardship, particularly as it relates to AMR, Folasade Tolulope Ogunsola, Ph.D., Vice Chancellor of the University of Lagos, Nigeria and Director of the Centre for Infection Control and Patient Safety, also joined the ASM Microbe 2023 President’s Forum.

Ogunsola has her finger on the pulse of multiple pathogenic threats. She studies the epidemiology and ecology of antibiotic-resistant organisms in the hospital environment and how to prevent transmission of AMR pathogens to patients and staff. She also develops and executes critical infection prevention and control strategies for pathogens outside of hospital settings—e.g., Ebola, tuberculosis, polio and HIV—and is a member of the Africa Task Force for Novel Coronavirus (AFCOR).

Ogunsola’s work demonstrates the importance of employing holistic approaches to microbiology research. “Pandemic preparedness means, to the best of our ability, keeping tabs on (re)emerging pathogens. Knowing where they are coming from, how they are evolving and what other microbes they are bringing with them,” Kraft said, noting that ecologic and epidemiologic studies shed light on many of these determinants.

Edward Holmes, Ph.D.Edward Holmes, Ph.D.
Source: American Society for Microbiology
In advance of ASM Microbe 2023, Kraft shared that she is particularly interested in the transmission dynamics of things that “go viral.” SARS-CoV-2 spread before we fully understood how it was doing so. It continued to wreak havoc, acquiring mutations that conferred varying levels of immune escape to each new variant, as the microbiology community ran experiments and conducted surveillance to trace it. And to this day, the origins of the SARS-CoV-2 virus remain under investigation.

Edward Holmes, Ph.D., a.k.a. the "Virus Hunter," is a world-renowned expert on virus evolution who rounded out the distinguished panel of ASM Microbe 2023 President’s Forum experts. Holmes researches how RNA viruses evolve and spread, often crossing species boundaries to emerge in new hosts, and he has been a key figure in the debate over the origins of SARS-CoV-2. Holmes has earned international acclaim and awards of the highest honor, including the Australian Prime Minister's Prize for Science. His work demonstrates the value of metagenomic technology and phylogenetic analysis in contextualizing the processes by which outbreaks and epidemics unfold.

Kraft was excited to bring these experts together for a robust conversation to investigate the social dynamics, as well as the science, that have shaped the post-COVID-19 era. She emphasized that she is not only interested in how microorganisms spread, but also how thoughts, information and ideas are transmitted. “We have seen how quickly a pathogen like SARS-CoV-2 can spread, and we have also experienced first-hand the speed with which fear and misinformation can travel. Ideas and information can be globally transmitted; why can’t hope?”

Kraft explained that she wanted to bring together leaders and subject matter experts who have global reach and influence to talk about the issues of pandemic preparedness, AMR, global health and social equity. “It is my hope that instead of driving further dissent, we can discuss ways in which the global microbiology community can use our knowledge and skillset to spark positive change.”

Author: Ashley Hagen, M.S.

Ashley Hagen
Ashley Hagen, M.S., joined the American Society for Microbiology as the Science Communications Specialist in 2020. Today, she is the Scientific and Digital Editor and host of ASM's Meet the Microbiologist and Microbial Minutes.