Biodiversity is one of the Earth’s greatest treasures. Microbes despite their small size have a huge impact on our lives, therefore understanding their role in the environment is important to the maintenance of our planet and preserving the diversity of plants and animals. Microorganisms have the largest genetic diversity on Earth; billions of species of bacteria are suspected to exist, however only 1-5% or so species are characterized.
Microorganisms, being the pioneer colonizers of this planet and the masters of the biosphere as they considered by some, they are ubiquitous, can exist in most inhospitable habitats with extreme temperature, pH, water and salt stress.
Microbes and Soil Sustainability
Soil ecosystems are highly complex and dynamic having an extremely varied biota comprising plants, animals and microbes. Soil is a highly heterogeneous matrix and is a habitat of an extremely diverse community of microorganisms including bacteria, fungi, archaea, protozoa, and algae. The soil microbiota is the ‘biological engine of the earth’ necessary for sustaining vital ecosystem processes and maintaining soil functions. Microbes play a fundamental role in a wide range of soil ecological processes, energy flows, degradation of toxic materials, and thus are a key player in climate change mitigation.
Soil microorganisms are a key component of food webs, they regulate bio-geochemical nutrient cycling such as in the nitrogen cycle, and hence the nutrient availability for the ecosystem primary producers.
Microorganisms are responsible for modifying the soil physical structure so as to better cope with disturbances and stress, allowing for more flexible responses to environmental changes than in low diversity communities. Due to the major role that microbes play in soil sustainability, some of them might be considered as indicators of soil health.
Applications of Microbes
Microbes are of tremendous importance to man. Worldwide, the economic value of microorganisms is estimated to be at least many tens of billions of dollars annually. The microbial application for economic or industrial purposes has advanced considerably with fast-paced developments in industrial microbiology and biotechnology. Microbial diversity has provided invaluable service to mankind since the ancient time.
Despite the fact that microbes were not yet been discovered in ancient times, people relied on microbes to produce different types of their food. Vinegar, yogurt, many types of cheese and most importantly bread are good examples. Almost all antibiotics have their origins in the metabolites of soil bacteria, especially within a family known as Actinomycetes.
Microbes are also used to produce vaccine providing humans with immunity against several lethal diseases such as measles and smallpox. Many diseases can be treated with microbial compounds such as diabetes, cancer, cystic fibrosis, growth hormone deficiency and hepatitis B.
In addition, microorganisms are factories for industrial enzymes production which are used to enhance detergents, to clean up toxic wastes, to replace chemicals in paper and pulp processing, and for oil extraction. Futhermore, microorganisms and their enzyme systems are responsible for the degradation of organic matter. Currently, wastewater treatment uses microbes to decompose organic matter in sewage. Microbes can also be used to create biofuels like biogas or bioethanol.
Significance of Microbial Biodiversity Conservation
While microbial communities are potentially affected by natural and anthropogenic activities such as agriculture, use of pesticides, pollution and urban development, it is not yet known how changes in microbial diversity can influence ecosystems. Dry lands have been neglected in both conservation and sustainable use efforts despite the fact that deserts are a fragile ecosystem which has to be handled carefully.
Knowledge of the composition of bacterial communities and of how these communities are affected by landscape sustainability measures will find wider application in landscape sustainability programs and contribute to future global policies. This new dimension when integrated into the general research conducted will enhance the findings that will be applied in the development, restoration and management programs of biodiversity conservation and the creation of a national biodiversity management policy.