Microbiology is the study of microorganisms, including unicellular (single-celled) eukaryotes and prokaryotes, fungi, and viruseses. Today, most of the work in microbiology is done using methods from biochemistry and genetics. It is also related to pathology, as many microorganisms are pathogens.
Microbiologists have made many fundamental contributions to biology, especially in the fields of biochemistry, genetics, and cell biology. Microbes have many traits that make them ideal model organisms:
- They are small, therefore they do not consume many resources
- Some have very short generation times (~30 minutes for E. coli)
- Cells can easily survive in isolation from other cells
- They can reproduce by mitotic division, allowing for the propagation of genetically identical (clonal) populations.
- They may be frozen for long periods of time. Even if 90% of the cells are killed by the freezing process, there are millions of cells in a milliliter of liquid culture.
The extensive characterization of microbes has allowed them to be used as tools in other branches of biology:
- Bacteria (especially E. coli) may be used to replicate DNA in the form of a plasmid. This DNA is often chemically modified in vitro then inserted into bacteria to select for the desired traits and isolate the desired product from by-products of the reaction. After growing the bacteria and thereby replicating the DNA, the DNA may be further modified and inserted into other organisms.
- Bacteria may be used to produce large amounts of protein using genes encoded on a plasmid
- Bacterial genes have been inserted into other organisms as reporter genes.
- The yeast two-hybrid system combines bacterial genes with genes from the organism being studied and inserts them into yeast cells to study protein-protein interactions within a cellular environment.