This may sound far-fetched but is actually hardcore research. The goal is to get microorganisms such as bacteria and fungi to make production of goods in the future more sustainable. The potential is enormous and the climate challenges so great that researchers have difficulty in understanding why people remain sceptical instead of accelerating development. Two researchers, an author and a photographer kick-start the debate in a new book. The mission is to make readers a little better informed and better equipped to take a position.
Zero hunger, clean water and sanitation, gender equality, affordable and clean energy and healthy ecosystems. Few people disagree with achieving these aims. According to the American Society for Microbiology, these are just some of the Sustainable Development Goals that tiny invisible organisms can help to achieve, because microbes know no boundaries. In their new book Se det usynlige i øjnene [Eyeing the invisible], microbiologists Søren Molin and Jan Sørensen, author Tor Nørretranders and photographer Henrik Saxgren ask whether there are limits to what we should get microorganisms to help us with.
“We admit that we do not agree on everything. But the whole point is that we do not have to agree, but to take a position, we need to know the perspectives. We try to show the fascinating invisible world of bacteria and fungi and show that they can really help us if we get to know them better. We do this through research, but a debate among the general public will eventually determine whether we end up using the new technologies,” explains co-author Søren Molin, Novo Nordisk Foundation Center for Biosustainability, Technical University of Denmark, Kongens Lyngby.
Warning in Nobel Lecture
The idea for the new book was conceived by Jan Sørensen, Professor Emeritus of Microbial Ecology and Biotechnology at the University of Copenhagen, and Søren Molin, two microbiologists who wanted to write the history of microbiology in Denmark. Their collaboration resulted in more than 200 pages and a very thorough scientific review of the 19th-century microbiological adventures in beer brewing and cheese production; the establishment of the first veterinary school in Denmark in the 18th century and a Serum Laboratory in 1909; the biotechnological revolution in the 1970s; and today’s attempts to get microorganisms to help us combat disease, famine and climate change.
“To turn the material into book form, we invited author Tor Nørretranders to strengthen our communication and introduce a critical look at the technologies, and later we invited photographer Henrik Saxgren to depict this invisible world by using light microscopes and electron microscopes. We need to grasp this nettle. We must not and cannot neglect the need for discussions about our attempts to get microorganisms to help to solve some of the serious challenges facing the world,” says Søren Molin.
The original 200-plus more scientifically oriented pages are available on the Internet (www.mikrobiologi.digital), but the equally long book has become a richly illustrated debate-filled tour-de-force through the technological advances of microbiology – the good, the bad and the ugly. Microorganisms have provided humanity with many gifts from foods such as dairy products, natural stimulants such as wine and medical revolutions, including penicillin and other antibiotics.
“But this is not really a simple gift, because the human ability to explore has taught us to get bacteria and fungi to help us in our everyday lives. In reality, penicillin is also an example of how people have not been able to manage this gift properly,” says Søren Molin.
Alexander Fleming even warned against possible abuse in his Nobel Lecture.
“It is not difficult to make microbes resistant to penicillin in the laboratory by exposing them to concentrations not sufficient to kill them, and the same thing has occasionally happened in the body. The time may come when penicillin can be bought by anyone in the shops. Then there is the danger that the ignorant man may easily underdose himself and by exposing his microbes to non-lethal quantities of the drug make them resistant.”
Time to start dialogue again
Although – or perhaps because – people have made mistakes in the past, Søren Molin thinks that there is every reason to be optimistic, because we have learned from these mistakes, which hopefully means that we will not make them again. We have become aware of the need to discuss the new technologies, opportunities and perspectives, but we also need to know what can go wrong if we are not careful.
“When the genetic engineering revolution really took off in Denmark in the 1970s, guidelines and advice were quickly drawn up that set the framework. All these initiatives reflect a fine tradition of popular education in Denmark and meant that the debate on genetically modified organisms, despite some heated discussions, proceeded relatively undramatically and without being sabotaged by opponents. There was acceptance from the start that vital medicines, which could then be produced much more cheaply and safely, could be produced after thorough risk assessment,” explains Søren Molin.
In other areas, however, the general public dug its heels in. Expressions of interest to use genetically modified yeast for producing beer or genetically modified lactic acid bacteria for producing dairy products were rejected. The idea of eating genetically modified foods represented a clear ethical conflict for many people – a slippery slope down which they chose not to slide in the first place. Based on the past 50 years of development in both the technologies but also global challenges, the time has come, the authors think, to rekindle the dialogue.
“Today the focus is much broader than corporate greed and includes the potential for growing crops without pesticides and being able to feed an entire planet without exacerbating global climate change. Microorganisms can help with this, and this requires reorganising industrial production so that biological organisms instead carry out chemical processes, conserving energy and protecting the environment. Microorganisms can simply help ease the pressure on our overheating planet,” says Søren Molin.
So whether you oppose or support the potential of microbes and genetic technology, the new book is worth reading.
“We do not want to glorify or lecture. We want to disseminate knowledge to the general public. The most important goal is that readers feel a little better informed, so that they are better able to take a position on the technologies the future will inevitably offer. We must all learn to eye the invisible,” concludes Søren Molin.