What can we learn from microbes?


Believe it or not, life does not end where our vision does. In fact, life goes deeper and gets smaller than one could ever imagine! A single drop of water has innumerable unique, diverse, creepy, yet amazing organisms. When we look at a drop of water, we do not see the tiny life forms within, called microorganisms. Yet, bacteria, protozoa, rotifers,  and other microorganisms exist everywhere. Microorganisms live in every part of the biosphere, in deep soil, in scalding hot springs, in the deepest depths of the ocean and the highest reaches of the atmosphere. Our planet is blooming with life everywhere! 


Our Earth is living. The pulsation of life doesn’t cease where our vision does. A handful of garden soil contains roughly a billion bacteria, 120,00 fungi, and 25,000 algae. If that does not inspire you with the same awe that you feel when you look up at the immense number of stars in the night sky, consider that these life forms have been around longer than anything on Earth. Longer than the dinosaurs, even. I can recall the wonder I felt when I saw the T. rex, Sue, at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. At that time, little did I know that there were organisms older than Sue in the food I eat, the water I drink, and even in my own body.


What will happen to the world if every child sees the vastness of the microcosm? It isn’t necessarily about seeing these organisms, but the fascination that follows. Reverend Smiley Blanton once said, “A sense of curiosity is nature’s original school of education.” What can we learn by observing this creatures in it’s environment?

This little guy, looks like a mite, came from the sides of my fish tank.

One of the most prominent aspects of this organism environment system is the way the animal moves through water. We all think we know water. We swim in it, get baptized in it, and every organism on this planet depends on it for survival. (Well, except microscopic tardigrades, which can change their form by replacing the water in their body to a sugar called trehalose.) Yet, other organisms perceive water in a different way. Watch the organism in the video. Does it seem like it is moving with ease?

When the organism moves through the water, it appears that it’s legs stick out of the water droplet. Yet, the droplet doesn’t break. It bends. This is surface tension. It causes the water to bead on the surface (so microorganisms can swim through) without spreading out. But… how?

The geometric configuration of the covalent bonds of H20 creates a dipole, meaning an uneven distribution of charge between oxygen, which has a partial negative charge, and hydrogen, which has a partial positive charge. Think magnets. Since opposite charges attract each other, the positive hydrogen region is attracted to the negative oxygen region of other water molecules (or negative ends of other molecules.) This is called hydrogen bonding.

I love it when chemistry all fits together :p

From observing the legs of our microorganism, we can clearly see the forces of cohesion that arise from these hydrogen bonds! The small charges on H2O molecules makes them “sticky”, because the small attractive force continues even when the organism’s leg tries to push through. Eureka! We have experienced surface tension firsthand using our Foldscope! Another great place to observe surface tension is at a pond, where you can see small insects walking on the water.

We can learn so much about our universe, even about properties of water, just from taking the time to observe the organisms that exist beyond our own vision. We are all organisms interacting with an environment, and when we take the time to dive deeper into our own environment, we are revealed the mysteries and wonders of the cosmos. We can witness firsthand, on a microscopic level, the forces of cohesion. Microbes, which produce about half the oxygen we breathe, can teach us about the cohesion that allows trees (which also produce the oxygen in our lungs) to be able to get water from the roots to the very top without any pumping system.

The microscopic world is here for all of us to learn from. It is truly remarkable to ponder that the atoms in my body came from collapsed stars, and my atoms are here looking at other atoms through a Foldscope.

I guess Paracelsus was right when he said, “Man is a microcosm, or a little world, because he is an extract from all the stars and planets of the whole firmament, from the earth and the elements; and so he is their quintessence.”




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