Field of Science

What's with microbiologists and ecology?

As a member of a biological sciences faculty, I regularly get to interact with colleagues with very different expertises. What a joy! Among this biological diversity, no greater rift in understanding and mutual appreciation exists than between microbiologists and organimal biologists. Even worse is that it's a very one-sided bigotry born of a narrow, biomedical, reductionist approach to the study of bacteria.

Twenty years ago our microbiologists complained about biological diversity and evolution as required courses. Apparently systematics and evolution where not subjects with any apparent importance to microbiology. The same was said about educating pre-medical students who had no need to understand the basic concepts of biology.

Well, thanks to Carl Woese enough progress has been made in the study of prokaryote phylogeny that these objections became pretty ridiculous. Now they object to the inclusion of ecology in the core curriculum of biology. Wow! Another subject without any relevance to microorganisms.

However, more than anything this simply demonstrates the remarkably narrow perspective of my microbial colleagues who cannot see beyond their reductionist approach to biomedicine. This is particularly amusing, or dismaying, because the worst offender studies resistance to antibiotics. What does he think is happening when antibiotics are used? Apparently he thinks antibiotics do not exert a selective force on bacteria and that the community structure of microorganisms is unaffected. More and more studies are finding that interactions among bacteria form communities that can be disturbed and cause severe health problems. My own daughter was given the wrong antibiotic for a C-diff infection (test gave a false negative) and it made matters much worse! C-diff is a natural part of our gut's bacterial flora and is held in check by interactions with other members of this community.

Fortunately not all members of this field are so narrow in their perspective. Microbiologists exist who have discovered evolution and ecology, and their relevance to research, even biomedicine. A google search on "bacterial ecology" generated 2,600,000 hits, and a great many of these were journal articles. A similar result was obtained by googling "microbial ecology" (3,480,000 hits), and of course there are journals that specialize in these fields.

Such ignorance would be quite amusing except that the education of our students suffers from these narrow-minded views.

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