Microbes under the microscope


We want to get rid of pathogens that invade our environment every day and make us sick, but do we need to kill all microorganisms?

But it is possible that in a world completely devoid of germs, we will not be able to live a healthy life.

Bacteria, viruses, and fungi can invade our bodies and multiply in our tissues, causing conditions that require medical attention, or release toxins, causing unpleasant reactions in our bodies, such as food poisoning. In case of such invasions, our immune system has special cells called white blood cells that protect our body by releasing a number of substances that destroy intruders. A healthy immune system is able to constantly resist several types of pathogens, but sometimes pathogens are in such numbers that our defense capabilities are not enough to defeat them. The immune system is powerless until it produces antibodies in sufficient quantities to defeat the infection, and it is at this time that the disease is most acute.

The treatment of such conditions consists in taking sufficient amounts of chemotherapy drugs: antibiotics to fight a bacterial infection, antifungal drugs to fight a fungal infection, and even antivirals, although these pathogens are much more difficult to destroy. All of these drugs are the product of years of research by chemists and pharmacists, and their use without medical supervision is quite problematic (for example, many people mistakenly use penicillin to treat viral infections). Our job is to end pathogens before they finish us.

There are two ways to reduce the number of harmful germs around us — cleaning and disinfection. Cleaning gets rid of visible dirt, and with it many pathogens, disinfection gets rid of invisible pollutants, in particular bacteria, and especially those that cause disease.

Where do pathogens most often hide? It is generally accepted that in homes they are most in the toilet and near the kitchen sink. Outside the home, we are primarily concerned with germs living in swimming pools, bars and restaurants, public toilets and hospitals.

Suspicions can also be raised in other places, which, however, we encounter much less often, these are morgues, slaughterhouses, laundries, dairy kitchens, food factories, air conditioners. All of these facilities have excellent conditions for the growth of harmful microbes.

Types of microbes

The enemy can appear to us in many shapes and sizes. Viruses are very small, about ten microns in size (that’s one ten-millionth of a meter), and can only be seen through an electron microscope. Bacteria are larger, although also invisible to the naked eye, they are a single cell ranging in size from 1 to 20 micrometers. Some of them have a thick cell wall and can be stained using the Hans Gram method, while other bacteria cannot be stained this way because their cell wall is much thinner. Those bacteria that stain with Gram are called Gram-positive, and those that do not stain in this way are called Gram-negative. Fungi range from single-celled organisms, such as yeast, with cell sizes on the order of five microns, to large and much more complex structures such as cap mushrooms. Some fungi that live harmlessly in the intestines can invade other parts of our body, causing disease.


The gram-positive bacteria that we most commonly suffer from include the following species: Clostridium perfingens, Staphylococcus and Listeria, which are associated with food poisoning; Enterococcus, which is especially abundant in feces; Propionobacterium acnes, which causes acne; Staphylococcus aureus — the cause of sepsis and boils; Streptococcus pyogenes, which causes angina; Streptococcus mutans is a bacterium that lives in dental plaque and leads to tooth decay.

Gram-negative bacteria include the following common species: Escherichia coli, which lives in the intestines; Klebsiella is the cause of hospital infections; Campylobacter — causing food poisoning, along with Salmonella enteritidis and Salmonella typhimurium; and Shigella sonnei, the causative agent of dysentery.

Pathogenic fungi include the following: Candida albicans — the causative agent of thrush of the oral cavity and vagina; Epidermophyton and Trichophyton, it is because of them that the athlete’s foot develops; the relatively harmless Malassezia furfur, which causes dandruff; and the much more serious ringworm pathogen Microsporum.

But most often we encounter a viral infection, especially a rhinovirus infection, accompanied by a constellation of symptoms that we often refer to as the common cold, and the more serious influenza virus. Another common viral infection is herpes, which causes sores around the mouth and genitals.

Source: based on the book by John Emsley «On the benefits and harms of the products we love to buy»

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