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The Tiny Giants

Mar 2, 2022

Hi, my name is Galit, and I’m a biologist. Or more specifically, a microbiologist.

I was born in the Former Soviet Union and one of my first memories is of my father and me wandering in a forest, foraging for mushrooms. I can close my eyes and vividly remember the feeling of being surrounded by green, the wet leaves under my feet, and the refreshing scent of the forest surrounding us. I was eight when my family repatriated to Israel, and I discovered that its green is different. It was fascinating for me as a child to discover how every place has its different rocks, trees, textures. I fell in love with nature and became increasingly interested in exploring it, with science fast becoming my favorite subject in school. Growing up I was drawn to biology but following my parents’ expectation of what they perceived as the ultimate professions, I chose to study computers and electronics instead. But my interest in biology just got stronger, and since my high school was located on the Hebrew University’s campus, I started attending biology classes there, out of pure curiosity. Most of the time I didn’t understand much, but what I did - astonished me, and it became clear to me that I would enroll for a bachelor’s degree in Life Sciences. I was pretty determined to become an ecologist, but then during my second year at university, I entered a Microbiology lecture and immediately fell in love. The realization that there is so much more going on beneath the surface, and learning about the capabilities and the influence tiny microbes have on our lives, was astounding and changed my life forever.

Now that I’ve shared the path that led me to the world of microbiology, let me share with you how I perceive the world around me, and the role microbes play in it.

When I go on my morning runs and look around, I don’t just see trees or flowers or even people, I see a lot of different habitats: microbial habitats. Imagine that you are on the moon, and you look down on Earth. You see oceans and land, beautiful blue, green and brown colors. You don’t see the people running on the streets of NYC or lying on the beaches of Mexico. You don’t see them riding up elevators of skyscrapers in Singapore or enjoying the amazing beer factories in Ireland. You can’t see them - but we know they’re there, a part of Earth’s population of around 7.7 billion. Now, imagine a leaf on a tree, about the size of the palm of your hand. You can’t see it, but there is a huge community of about 0.15-1.5 billion microbes on that leaf! They live in a diverse, complex, and interactive community. Just like us. This community on the leaf is called a phyllosphere microbiome. Humans have their own microbiomes too, containing at least the same number of microbes in and on our body as the total number of our body’s cells.

Microbes are all around us. They are everywhere, and we need them. They help keep us healthy, digest our food, and produce oxygen. They are the oldest and most abundant form of life on Earth. The word microbe actually represents different species of bacteria, yeast, fungi and even strange species like archaea. They are so small they can only be detected as single cells by microscope and are only visible to the naked eye when grown under specific conditions in a structure referred to as a colony, each colony usually consisting of more than a million cells. Although some microbes are multicellular and others live in clusters, most of the microbes are unicellular, meaning that one cell contains the entire mechanism required for its survival and reproduction. Just to give us some perspective: there are about 30 trillion cells in the human adult body, which together enable us to survive and reproduce. The microbes have it all packed in one cell: they have a mechanism that allows them to hunt for food, digest it, and produce energy; they have their unique DNA which is transferred to the next generation; and they can communicate with each other and adapt to various stressful conditions. They are an entire factory in one small cell.

Microbes are extremely efficient, but they are not intelligent creatures. They are not motivated or driven by thought or desire, instead they are driven by basic survival instincts, allowing them to survive and reproduce. They are simple creatures, with a rich history of doing us a whole lot of good.

For centuries, microbes have played a part in the production of food and beverages. We have them to thank for the good beer we enjoy produced using brewer’s yeast, while the baker’s yeast is responsible for tasty and fluffy pastries we enjoy on the streets of Paris. They are the ones behind our favorite cheeses such as one of the world’s best-known blue cheese, Roquefort. And without lactic acid bacteria, we wouldn’t be able to enjoy yogurt. In medicine, we use the molecules that fungi produce to fight infections, think Penicillin. We ingest probiotics to support our health, or in other words, the “good microbes of the gut”, which help boost our microbiome. Microbes also help us with keeping our environment clean, degrading organic compounds, and turning them into rich compost. Microbes protect our plants and crops against diseases. Amazingly, there are even microbes responsible for oxygen production in the ocean. These microbes live near the ocean surface and convert carbon dioxide and water into carbohydrates and oxygen and although they are so small, these microbes are so abundant that they generate half the oxygen we breathe. And there is so much more these amazing microscopic creatures can do.

And now, we’ve uncovered a new way to get microbes to help humankind. We found a revolutionary way to harness their power and capabilities to produce the world’s kindest, purest milk proteins – identical to the ones cows produce but in a way that is immeasurably more efficient and sustainable.

How do we use microbes to produce our unique protein? I think that question deserves a blog post of its own.