Posted on February 6, 2009 by Tia Lalani

In addition to talking about the impact microorganisms have on food, Dr. Gares will discuss the advantages � particularly the environmental advantages

by Dylan McConnell

I recently sat down with Dr. Sheryl Gares, a biology professor at the U of A’s Augustana Campus, to talk about her upcoming presentation regarding some of the most under appreciated and mysterious organisms on the planet – microbes.

Dr. Gares specializes in the study of microbiology and immunology, so she is no stranger to the world of tiny beings. Something that she would like to highlight in her presentation is the roles that microbes play in our world of cheese, wine, yogurt, bread, beer and many other foods/drink that we enjoy. Many of the foods we love would disappear without the microbes that help create them, and our quality of life would suffer as a result.

Microbes change food through processes like fermentation or pasteurization, which can alter the taste of foods (like in sauerkraut or wine) or act as a type of natural preservative for foods/drinks like milk. Through well researched and long practiced methods, chemists, cooks and biologists consciously add different kinds of bacteria or yeast to food and allow the microbes to alter the product. Dr. Gares explains “we have highly defined methods for growing microbes that are specific to certain foods,” methods that often involve harvesting the microbes from the plants they will ultimately alter. For instance, a certain kind of yeast can be reaped from grapes (due to their high sugar content) and added to the juice later to create wine. Of course, Dr. Gares is careful to indicate that throughout this fermentation process, the winemakers put their product through rigorous sterilization to ensure that the wrong types of bacteria stay away from human consumption.

In addition to talking about the impact microorganisms have on food, Dr. Gares will discuss the advantages – particularly the environmental advantages – that microbes offer. For one thing, I have learned through my conversation with Dr. Gares that plants are not the only organisms that convert carbon dioxide into oxygen – cyanobacteria (found in the ocean) does as well. Also, Dr. Gares says “there is no organic substance on the planet that cannot be broken down by some microbe – there are even microorganisms that can break down plastics.” It would be huge if we could find the right kinds of microbes to recycle all of our waste. Already microbes have been employed in this matter, helping to break down oil spills and treat sewage in large centers. Indeed, Dr. Gares thinks that “if all of our waste was handled as efficiently as that in sewage treatment plants, we’d be a lot better off than we are now.”

Of course as we all know, microbes are also Earth’s composters, breaking down natural, dead matter into soil, returning the once-living back into the cycle of life. These tiny beings are constantly working and keeping our planet a relatively clean, smoothly-running machine. According to Dr. Gares, “without microbes the world wouldn’t exist” and indeed, after everything she told me in our interview, she seems to be right.

So come on out to Dr. Sheryl Gares’ presentation and learn a little bit about the unnoticed, unheralded microorganisms that affect our food, our drinks, our lives.

The presentation will take place on February 23 at 12:30 in C014.

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