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The Job

Microbiologists examine microscopic organisms (microorganisms, microbes, or germs) such as algae, bacteria, fungi, molds, protozoans, viruses, and yeasts. They are interested in the form, structure, classification, and distribution of microorganisms, as well as their interactions and relationships with each other. Microbiologists study ways that microorganisms affect human, plant, and animal life and our environment, indoors and out. They search for ways to use microorganisms to make improvements in food and drugs, as well as to understand their involvement in the spread or control of disease and pollution. For example, antibiotics are produced using bacteria or fungi, and microbes can be used to break down waste. Microorganisms are used in the making of foods like cheese and tofu, in food preservation, and in meat tenderizing processes. Flavors, colors, and added vitamins are all made from microbes.

Microbiologists work independently or as part of a team in the field collecting samples and in laboratories examining these samples. They grow bacteria in small covered dishes called Petri dishes, and they check reactions of microorganisms when introduced to physical or chemical agents in test tubes. They examine microorganisms under microscopes and keep track of their data and conduct research on computers.

Microbiologists work in the agriculture, beverage, biotechnology, chemical, education, environmental, food, manufacturing, and pharmaceutical industries, among others. They work in private companies and hospitals conducting research or developing drugs, and they work in government agencies and laboratories. Some write microbiology-related articles or books for scientific publishers.

General microbiologists are concerned with a broad range of study including the structure, development, ecology, functions, and chemical changes of microorganisms.

Medical and clinical microbiologists have the goal of understanding, treating, and preventing diseases in humans. They explore microorganisms and infectious agents that cause various diseases, look for ways to more quickly diagnose diseases, and develop medicines to protect against diseases. Clinical microbiologists have helped prevent the spread of diseases like typhoid fever, influenza, measles, polio, whooping cough, and smallpox. Today they are trying to find cures and treatments for AIDS, cancer, cystic fibrosis, and Alzheimer's disease. Veterinary microbiologists do the same for animals. It is the clinical microbiologist who analyzes biological agents in cases of suspected bioterrorism.

Using genetic engineering, agricultural microbiologists develop crops that resist the elements (e.g., frost, drought, and extreme heat) as well as diseases and pests. They also study how microorganisms affect soil and water. They try to find ways to use microorganisms to kill insects as an alternative to using unsafe pesticides. Food microbiologists are concerned with making safer, tastier, and healthier food products and food that is less likely to spoil or become contaminated. Salmonella and Escherichia coli (E. coli) are two microorganisms, commonly found in food, that can cause illness.

Environmental microbiologists deal with environmental contamination, perhaps in waste sites, groundwater, or other outdoor locations. They examine oil spills, hazardous waste sites, or polluted air and try to find organisms that will successfully clean up the contamination. They work to keep wildlife, rodents, and insects from transmitting infectious agents.

Industrial microbiologists, or biotechnologists, apply the principles of biology and engineering to microorganisms to develop new products (drugs, alcoholic beverages, cosmetics, and foods), monitor the safety of existing products, and oversee manufacturing processes.

Marine microbiologists explore microorganisms that live in the world's oceans, and limnologists study fresh water organisms.

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