The Unsung Heroes of Nature
February 3, 2020
The Times of Israel – BGU’s Prof. Itzik Mizrahi plans to engineer microbial communities to reduce climate-warming methane and develop more sustainable methods of creating energy and treating waste.
Microbes, which include bacteria and fungi, were once seen primarily as vectors of disease; today, they are appreciated as the ultimate alchemists and unsung heroes of nature.
Prof. Itzik Mizrahi, of the Mizrahi Laboratory in the Department of Life Sciences, studies the way microbes interact with and influence their environment. That might be in the soil or in the stomachs of animals, including humans.
In previous studies, his group found that microbes in a cow’s rumen, the part of the stomach in cows, sheep and goats where microbes break down food, affect not only how much methane animals release, but also the quantity and quality of their milk.
Microbes are the living things, invisible to the naked eye, that disappear in our waste, both inside and on the surface of our bodies and in the natural world in general. They produce enzymes that recycle waste (from dead skin cells on our hands to fallen tree trunks in forests) by breaking it down into its constituent chemical parts. In the cycle of nature, these can be reused to create and maintain new life.
Microbes are key players in other natural processes, too, such as the carbon cycle, in which carbon moves from the atmosphere into organisms (think teeth and bones) and down into the soil or the seabed, before reentering the atmosphere.
They can transform atmospheric nitrogen into a chemical form that plants can absorb (and that animals, like us, can then eat). From strengthening the immune system to helping clouds drop rain or snow, microbes appear to be busy everywhere.
Unlocking the secrets of how these tiny workers function may open up new possibilities for using, tailoring and engineering them to perform a variety of sustainable tasks.
In another project, Mizrahi joined scientists from Ecuador, Germany and the U.S. to examine the gut microbes that help marine iguanas on the Galapagos Islands avoid starvation during El Nino events.
Also on the horizon, is the engineering of microbes and microbial communities to more efficiently break down and convert plant matter into carbon-neutral biofuels such as ethanol.
The Mizrahi team just secured two major European grants totaling four million euros (about $4,434,000) over the past two months to help it advance this groundbreaking research. “We hope that we can use this funding to make a change by harnessing microbial activities to benefit humanity and decrease its harmful impact on our planet,” Mizrahi said.