The Story of Microbes
Microbes are the oldest form of life on Earth. Some types have existed
for billions of years. These single-cell organisms are invisible to the
eye, but they can be seen with microscopes. Microbes live in the water
you drink, the food you eat, and the air you breathe. Most microbes are
helpful and some even essential, like the billions of microbes swimming
in your intestines to help digest food and create the essential vitamins
our bodies need. Billions more live naturally in our skin, mouth, nose,
teeth, throat, and urethra. In fact, 95% of all microbes are not harmful.
Where Do Microbes Live?
Humans, microbes, and other living creatures all share the environment
and interact in ways that allow them to coexist. Microbes' mission in
life is to reproduce and do whatever it takes to survive. They have the
ability to evolve rapidly and can adapt to changing conditions, but where
any particular microbe can live depends on its biological requirements.
Some, like the hantavirus microbe, are limited to the habitat of the
animals that carry them for part of their life cycle. Some have evolved
to exist in more than one habitat: different flu viruses can survive
in humans, birds, and other animals, and can even withstand drying out
on an exposed surface. Others are far more specialized and can survive
in only one type of environment. Deadly and widespread as it is, HIV
cannot exist for long outside the human body, for example.
Some disease-causing microbes enter the human body and stay there for
part or all of their life cycle. When pathogenic microbes spend part
of their lives in insects or other animals before they move to the human
body, they are called vector-borne agents. Some microbes that live in
water are harmful if swallowed, or if they penetrate the skin. Soil microbes
can enter the human body through a break in the skin or can be inhaled
How Did Microbes Become Agents of
Humankind's initial method for survival was to hunt and gather food.
Later, people developed agricultural societies, which sustain much higher
human population densities than the hunter-gathering lifestyle. Jared
Diamond, in his book Guns, Germs, and Steel, traces the history
of how people's advancement in civilization and agriculture has profoundly
affected how germs became closely associated with infectious diseases.
Whereas hunters frequently are on the move, farmers are sedentary and
live close to their own sewage, thus providing microbes a short path
from one person's body into another's drinking water. Some farming populations
make it even easier for their own fecal bacteria and worms to infect
new victims, by gathering their feces and urine and spreading them as
fertilizer on the fields where people work. Irrigation agriculture and
fish farming provide ideal living conditions for the snails carrying
shistosomiasis and for flukes that burrow through the skin as people
wade through feces-laden water. Farmers also become surrounded by disease-transmitting
rodents, attracted by the farmers' stored food. Forest clearings made
by African farmers also provide ideal breeding habitats for malaria-transmitting
People began to domesticate selected plants and animals, using them
for food, healing, herding, transportation, or companionship. Diverse
epidemic diseases of humans evolved in areas with many wild plant and
animal species suitable for domestication, partly because the resulting
crops and livestock helped feed dense societies in which epidemics could
maintain themselves, and partly because the diseases evolved from germs
of the domesticated animals themselves.
The major killers of humanity throughout our recent history--smallpox,
flu, tuberculosis, malaria, plague, measles, and cholera--are infectious
diseases that have evolved from diseases of animals, even though most
of the microbes responsible for our own epidemic illnesses are paradoxically
now almost confined to humans. Diseases have been the biggest killers
of people. Until World War II, more victims died of war-borne microbes
than of battle wounds.
If the rise of agriculture, proliferation of populations, and domestication
of plants and animals were a bonanza for our microbes, the rise of cities
was a greater one, as still more densely packed human populations festered
under even worse sanitation conditions. Another bonanza was the development
of world trade routes, which by Roman times effectively joined the populations
of Europe, Asia, and North Africa into one giant breeding ground for
microbes. Today, our jet planes have made even the longest intercontinental
flights briefer than the duration of any human infectious disease. The
explosive increase in world travel by Americans, and in immigration to
the United States, is turning us into another melting pot--this time,
of microbes that we previously dismissed as just causing exotic diseases
in far-off countries.
The World of Microbes
There are five types of microbes: bacteria, viruses, protozoans, fungi,
and helminths (worms).
The most abundant organisms on Earth, bacteria live
almost everywhere: in the soil and water, in plants and animals.
Whether they take the form of spheres, rods or spirals, bacteria
consist of a single cell. Unlike the cells of animals and plants,
bacterial cells lack a nucleus, but they can carry out all necessary
life functions. Most bacteria are parasites, although a few manufacture
their own food. Some of these parasites are very helpful -- they
aid in many bodily functions including digestion, and help with
other processes, such as decomposition of soil and changing of
milk into cheese. Disease results, however, when bacteria multiply
rapidly (each cell simply divides into two identical cells) and
damage or kill human tissue, as in pneumonia and tuberculosis.
Diseases can also produce toxins that damage or kill human tissue,
as in food poisoning or cholera. Sometimes bacteria in the body
are helpful for a while, and then something in the body or the
bacteria changes, causing destruction in the host.
Bacteria pictured clockwise from top: E. coli 0157:H7
(causes food poisoning), Strepococcus pyrogenes (causes
strep throat), Mycobacterium tuberculosis (causes tuberculosis)
By far the smallest microbes, viruses can
appear as spirals, 20-sided figures or even more complicated forms.
They consist mainly of genetic material--DNA or RNA. They are not
cells, however, and cannot carry out life functions on their own.
Living inside the cells of other species, viruses use the host
cells to grow and produce new viral particles. As they take over
genetic material to reproduce themselves, the host cells often
die. Found in all groups of living things, from bacteria and fungi
to plants and animals, hundreds of the known viruses can cause
many kinds of infections, chickenpox, measles, flu, colds, polio,
and AIDS. Viruses cannot move by themselves and must be carried
to cells by air currents and then by body fluids to the cells.
Some viruses may lay dormant for years before becoming active,
as with AIDS. Most diseases come from other species, for example:
smallpox from dogs or cattle, hemorrhagic fevers from rodents and
monkeys, tuberculosis from cattle and birds, common cold from horses,
and AIDS from African monkeys.
Viruses pictured clockwise from top: Adenovirus
(causes the common cold), Influenza A (causes the flu), and Hepadnavirus
(causes hepatitis B)
Protozoa consist of a single cell that includes
a nucleus. The cell also contains structures that carry out specific
processes needed for life functions. A diverse and complex group,
protozoa range through many shapes and sizes. They can be parasitic,
needing to live within another organism, or free-living in moist
habitats. The similarity of inner structures of protozoan and human
cells makes it difficult to treat infections caused by protozoa.
Drugs that may destroy the protozoan may also destroy human cells.
Protozoan infections include amebic dysentery, malaria, and African
Protozoa pictured clockwise from top: Giardia
intestinalis (causes diarrhea), Trypanosoma brucei (causes
sleeping sickness), Plasmodium gametocyte (causes malaria)
Other microorganisms break down body tissues or
absorb digested food. They can cause anything from skin infections
to internal disorders that can lead to death. The group called
helminths includes flukes, roundworms, and tapeworms; these are
many-celled animals with developed organs. Among the numerous types,
some are parasites--organisms that live in or on another species,
usually harming the host species in the process. Because of their
size, parasitic worms grow outside of cells and can reach an astronomical
size of 30 feet in length.
Helminths pictured left to right: Ascaris lumbricoides (an
intestinal roundworm), Schistosoma mansoni (a parasitic
worm that lives in contaminated water and causes schistosomiasis
yeasts (one-celled), and mushrooms and molds (multi-celled). Unlike
plants, fungi do not make their own food. Some species of fungi
get their nutrition by breaking down remains of dead plants or
animals. Others are parasites. Examples of fungal infections include
athlete's foot and ringworm.
Fungi pictured left to right: Histoplasma capsulatum (causes
histoplasmosis, a lung infection), Penicillium notatum (produces
the drug penicillin)
Microbes Evolve, Just as Human Do
Microbes have evolved diverse ways of spreading from one person to another,
and from animals to people. Jared Diamond tells the following story of
how microbes have evolved to survive, just as people have evolved over
time to deal with diseases.
The most effortless way a germ could spread is by just waiting to be
transmitted passively to the next victim. That's the strategy practiced
by microbes that wait for one host to be eaten by the next host: e.g.,
salmonella bacteria, which humans contract by eating already infected
eggs or meat; the worm responsible for trichinosis, which gets from pigs
to people by waiting for humans to kill the pig and eat it without proper
cooking; and the worm causing anisakiasis, with which sushi lovers occasionally
infect themselves by consuming raw fish.
Most microbes don't wait for the old host to die and get eaten, but
instead hitchhike in the saliva of an insect that bites the old host
and flies off to find a new host. Mosquitoes, fleas, lice, or tsetse
flies that spread malaria, plague, typhus, or sleeping sickness, respectively,
may provide the free ride. Microbes that pass from a woman to her fetus,
thereby infecting babies at birth, perpetuate the dirtiest of all tricks
for passive carriage of diseases like syphilis, rubella, and AIDS.
Other germs take matters into their own hands. They modify the anatomy
or habits of their host in such a way as to accelerate transmission.
The open genital sores caused by venereal diseases like syphilis enlist
a host's help in inoculating microbes into a body cavity of a new host.
The skin lesions caused by smallpox similarly spread microbes by direct
or indirect body contact.
More vigorous yet is the strategy practiced by the influenza, common
cold, and pertussis (whopping cough) microbes, which induce the victim
to cough or sneeze, thereby launching a cloud of microbes toward prospective
new hosts. For the modification of a host's behavior, nothing matches
the rabies virus, which not only gets into the saliva of an infected
dog but also drives the dog into a frenzy of biting, thus infecting many
new victims. But for physical effort on the microbe's own part, the prize
still goes to worms such as hookworms and schistosomes, which actively
burrow through a host's skin from the water or soil into which their
larvae had been excreted in a previous victim's feces.
Thus, from the human point of view, genital sores, diarrhea, and coughing
are "symptoms of disease." But from a germ's point of view, they're clever
evolutionary strategies to spread the germ and ensure its survival. That's
why it's in the germ's best interest to "make us sick." From the germ's
perspective, illness is just an unintended by-product of host symptoms
promoting efficient transmission of microbes. /P>
When Microbe Meets Human
Harmful microorganisms enter the body in one of four ways:
- Through air, as droplets of water from the nose or mouth (whooping
cough, measles, mumps, influenza, tuberculosis, and half of all human
- Through unclean food and polluted water (cholera, dysentery, typhoid
fever, diphtheria, mad cow disease).
- Through the bites of infected mammals and insects (malaria, rabies,
bubonic plague, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, Lyme disease).
- Through direct personal contact (Ebola, herpes, syphilis, AIDS).
Infection and the Body Response
Given all the ways germs can enter our bodies, why don't we get sick
all the time? Your body has powerful defenses. Its first line of defense
against germs includes skin, mucous membranes in your nose and throat,
tears, the tiny hairs in your nose, bleeding, urination, and sweating.
These protectors either block harmful microbes from entering your body,
or wash them away. One common response to infection is to develop a fever.
The regulation of body temperature is under genetic control and is the
body's response to bake the germs to death, since a few microbes are
more sensitive to heat than our own bodies are.
If germs get beyond the first line of defense, our blood has a second
line of defense known as the immune
system. If germs enter the bloodstream, they will be attacked
by cells called macrophages (also
known as white blood cells). These cells will gobble and dissolve any
foreign microbes. Our bodies also produce antibodies that go after specific
diseases. The specific antibodies that
we gradually build up against a particular infecting microbe make us
less likely to get re-infected once we become cured. For some illnesses
such as the flu and the common cold, our resistance is only temporary;
we can eventually contract the illness again. Against other illnesses,
though--including measles, mumps, rubella, pertussis, smallpox, and now
even chickenpox--antibodies stimulated by one infection confer lifelong
immunity. That's the principle of vaccination:
to stimulate antibody production without our having to go through the
actual experience of the disease, by inoculating us with a dead or weakened
strain of a disease-causing microbe.
However, some microbes have learned to go beyond our immune defenses.
According to Diamond, some microbes trick us by changing those molecular
pieces of the microbe called antigens that our antibodies recognize.
The constant evolution or recycling of new strains of flu, with differing
antigens, explains why your having gotten the flu last year didn't protect
you against the different strain that arrived this year. Malaria and
sleeping sickness are even more slippery customers in their ability to
rapidly change their antigens. Among the worst, however, is AIDS, which
evolves new antigens even as it sits within an individual patient, thereby
eventually overwhelming the immune system.
Our slowest defensive response is through changes in gene frequencies
from generation to generation. For almost any disease, some people prove
to be genetically more resistant than are others. The human population
as a whole becomes better protected against the pathogen, but for a price.
The sickle-cells gene, Tay-Sachs gene, and cystic fibrosis gene confer
protection for African blacks, Ashkenazi Jews, and northern Europeans
against malaria, tuberculosis and bacterial diarrheas respectively.
Bacteria cause most ear infections, some sinus infections, strep throat,
and urinary tract infections, among other infectious diseases. Each time
you take an antibiotic, bacteria are killed. Sometimes bacteria may be
resistant or become resistant. Resistant bacteria do not respond to the
antibiotics and continue to cause an infection. Although there is a growing
number of patients who demand antibiotics to treat colds and flu, antibiotics
don't work against these infections. When you do get an antibiotic for
an infectious disease that calls for it, it is important to take it exactly
as prescribed, through the duration of the prescribed time.
Viruses cause all cold and flu, most coughs and most sore throats, in
addition to more serious infectious diseases. Antibiotics cannot kill
viruses. In order to get rid of a virus, the cell which has been invaded
by the virus must be killed, which results in damage to the cells themselves.
For this reason doctors can only control the symptoms of a viral infection,
but have not found cures. When viruses invade the body, the immune system
releases white blood cells. These cells produce antibodies, which cover
the virus's protein coat and prevent it from attaching itself to the
cell. White blood cells also destroy infected cells and thus kill the
viruses before they can reproduce. Unfortunately, some viruses such as
measles, influenza, and AIDS suppress the immune system.
Jared Diamond outlines four distinguishing traits to an epidemic: (1)
the infectious disease spreads quickly and efficiently from an infected
person to nearby healthy people, with the result that the whole population
gets exposed within a short time, (2) they're "acute" illnesses: within
a short time, one either dies or recovers completely, (3) the fortunate
ones who do recover develop antibodies that leave them immune against
a recurrence of the disease for a long time, possible for life, and (4)
these diseases tend to be restricted to humans. Consequently, what happens
is this: the rapid spread of microbes, and the rapid course of symptoms,
means that everybody in a local human population is quickly infected
and soon thereafter is either dead or else recovered and immune. No one
who could still be infected is alive. But since the microbe can't survive
except in the bodies of living people, the disease dies out, until a
new generation of babies reaches the susceptible age--and until an infectious
person arrives from the outside to start a new epidemic.
The greatest single epidemic in human history was the one of influenza
that killed 21 million people at the end of World War I. The Black Death
(bubonic plague) killed one quarter of Europe's population between 1346
and 1352, with death tolls ranging up to 70 percent in some cities. Smallpox
still remains the only infectious disease to be eradicated.
Eradication and Prevention
Germs cause illnesses that range from common ailments like a cold and
the flu; to disabling conditions such as Lyme disease and polio; to deadly
diseases like hantavirus and AIDS. The bad news is that some of these
can be quite serious. The good news is that many of these diseases can
be prevented through amazingly simple and extremely inexpensive methods.
Vaccination is one of the greatest achievements of modern medicine.
Each vaccine has its own rules and its own requirements of who should
receive the vaccine, when it should be administered, and how often, depending
on the characteristics of the vaccine. However, there is more to vaccination
than having a good vaccine. Once a vaccine is available, there is the
issue of who will pay for the costs to provide the vaccinations, especially
to poor countries where the problems are particularly devastating.
Another element of the debate in eradication and prevention is how
limited resources should be used. Should money go toward researching
new medicines, treating individual patients already infected, creating
massive public health education campaigns for prevention, or doing vigilant
surveillance of new diseases?
It's Up to All of Us
The American Association for World Health outlined who is doing what
on the global scene and more importantly, various measures individuals,
communities, and families can do to fight infectious diseases. Below
are some highlights.
On the global front, the World Health Organization (WHO) and United Nation's
Children's Fund (UNICEF) are leading organizations which stimulate and
advance work on the prevention and control of epidemic, endemic, and
other diseases of children, families, and individuals.
Nationally, the Centers for Disease Control
and Prevention (CDC) is the lead federal agency for protecting people's
health. CDC houses one of the few laboratories in the world that is equipped
to safely study the deadliest pathogens. In 1994, CDC issued a strategic
plan emphasizing surveillance, applied research, and the preventive activities
needed to maintain a strong defense against emerging disease agents.
Other U.S. government agencies, including the National Institutes of
Health and the Department of Defense, have also developed strategic plans
to counter U.S. vulnerability to emerging infections.
Advances in hygiene, immunizations, and antibiotics are important tools
in the battle against emerging infectious diseases. But they all hinge
on community partnerships needed to launch and sustain an effective,
wide-ranging, and long-term fight. Just as every community is expected
to have a well functioning, established fire detection and response system,
so too must every community have well functioning, proactive infectious
disease prevention and control capabilities to protect public safety
Communities need sound infrastructures to ensure safe water supplies,
community sanitation, and restaurant and food service inspection systems.
Public health programs need well trained experts and adequate resources
to detect and investigate unusual clusters of infectious diseases. Physicians
and laboratories must share infectious disease information with public
health officials who are looking for unusual disease clusters and patterns.
Physicians need up-to-date information on the frequency of antibiotic-resistant
microorganisms in the community and must adjust their prescribing practices
Hospitals must use protective precautions when caring for persons with
infectious diseases so they do not spread to others. Blood banks must
look for potentially dangerous organisms in blood that is used for transfusions.
Child-care centers and schools must enforce immunization requirements
to prevent childhood infectious diseases from spreading in the community.
Schools must teach and model protective measures so that children will
avoid infectious diseases now and when they are older.
Families and Individuals
Each of us can be a front-line defender against the threat of emerging
infectious diseases by following a few simple, common-sense practices:
- Keep immunizations up-to-date for children, adults, and pets.
- Wash hands often with warm water and soap, for at least 20 seconds.
(See Soapy Solutions experiment
in Just for Kids pages to learn why.)
- Handle, store, and cook foods safely to guard against food-borne
- Use antibiotics exactly as prescribed by the doctor, and finish
the entire prescription to make sure that the culprit organism has
no chance to develop drug resistance.
- Be cautious around wild animals and unfamiliar domestic animals.
- Use insect repellent on skin and clothing when in areas where ticks
or mosquitoes are common.
- Avoid unsafe, unprotected sex and injecting drug use.
- Learn about disease threats before traveling or when visiting wilderness
- When sick, allow time to heal and recover. Remind family members
to wash hands often, and avoid coughing or sneezing on others.
Go to www.cdc.gov/ncidod/op for
further details on hand washing, cleaning, food handling, immunizations,
antibiotics, pets, wild animals, and companion materials.
Banner microbe: Adenovirus (virus causing
from the American
Museum of Natural History Epidemic! exhibition
Teacher's Guide | Epidemic! | Exhibits