Microbiology in the 21st Century: Where Are We and Where Are We Going? 2004

Executive Summary

The American Academy of Microbiology convened a colloquium September 5-7, 2003, in Charleston, South Carolina to discuss the central importance of microbes to life on earth, directions microbiology research will take in the 21st century, and ways to foster public literacy in this important field. Discussions centered on:

• The impact of microbes on the health of the planet and its inhabitants;

• The fundamental significance of microbiology to the study of all life forms;

• Research challenges faced by microbiologists and the barriers to meeting those challenges;

• The need to integrate microbiology into school and university curricula; and

• Public microbial literacy.

This is an exciting time for microbiology. We are becoming increasingly aware that microbes are the basis of the biosphere. They are the ancestors of all living things and the support system for all other forms of life. Paradoxically, certain microbes pose a threat to human health and to the health of plants and animals. As the foundation of the biosphere and major determinants of human health, microbes claim a primary, fundamental role in life on earth. Hence, the study of microbes is pivotal to the study of all living things, and microbiology is essential for the study and understanding of all life on this planet.

Microbiology research is changing rapidly. The field has been impacted by events that shape public perceptions of microbes, such as the emergence of globally significant diseases, threats of bioterrorism, increasing failure of formerly effective antibiotics and therapies to treat microbial diseases, and events that contaminate food on a large scale. Microbial research is taking advantage of the technological advancements that have opened new fields of inquiry, particularly in genomics. Basic areas of biological complexity, such as infectious diseases and the engineering of designer microbes for the benefit of society, are especially ripe areas for significant advancement. Overall, emphasis has increased in recent years on the evolution and ecology of microorganisms. Studies are focusing on the linkages between microbes and their phylogenetic origins and between microbes and their habitats. Increasingly, researchers are striving to join together the results of their work, moving to an integration of biological phenomena at all levels.

While many areas of the microbiological sciences are ripe for exploration, microbiology must overcome a number of technological hurdles before it can fully accomplish its potential. We are at a unique time when the confluence of technological advances and the explosion of knowledge of microbial diversity will enable significant advances in microbiology, and in biology in general, over the next decade. To make the best progress, microbiology must reach across traditional departmental boundaries and integrate the expertise of scientists in other disciplines. Microbiologists are becoming increasingly aware of the need to harness the vast computing power available and apply it to better advantage in research. Current methods for curating research materials and data should be rethought and revamped. Finally, new facilities should be developed to house powerful research equipment and make it available, on a regional basis, to scientists who might otherwise lack access to the expensive tools of modern biology.

It is not enough to accomplish cutting-edge research. We must also educate the children and college students of today, as they will be the researchers of tomorrow. Since microbiology provides exceptional teaching tools and is of pivotal importance to understanding biology, science education in schools should be refocused to include microbiology lessons and lab exercises. At the undergraduate level, a thorough knowledge of microbiology should be made a part of the core curriculum for life science majors.

Since issues that deal with microbes have a direct bearing on the human condition, it is critical that the public-at-large become better grounded in the basics of microbiology. Public literacy campaigns must identify the issues to be conveyed and the best avenues for communicating those messages. Decision-makers at federal, state, local, and community levels should be made more aware of the ways that microbiology impacts human life and the ways school curricula could be improved to include valuable lessons in microbial science.


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