Overview of the Significance of Microbial Processes

Microorganisms maintain planet Earth largely by recycling organic and inorganic compounds in waters, sediments, and soils. Decomposition of deceased plant and animal biomass allows nutritionally precious materials (e.g., carbon, nitrogen, and sulfur) to be recycled from one generation of biota to the next. If recycling ceased, nutrients locked within plant and animal biomass would eventually limit primary and secondary production. Thus, microorganisms (traditionally encompassing pro-karyotes (Bacteria and Archaea), single-celled Eukarya (protozoa, fungi, and algae), and viruses) preserve geo-chemical and nutritional conditions that support global biomes and their inhabitants.

The continuous interactions between living microorganisms and the environment, combined with their cellular processes aimed at growth and survival, cause elements to be recycled. The many unique traits of microorganisms that guarantee performance of their ecological functions include small size, ubiquitous distribution, high specific surface area, potentially high rate of metabolic activity, genetic malleability, potentially rapid growth rate, and unrivaled enzymatic and nutritional versatility.

of exploiting virtually all naturally occurring (and many man-made) substances on Earth.

Enzymes accelerate reaction rates between thermody-namically favored reactions. Perhaps the most ecologically important class of enzymes catalyzes oxidation/reduction reactions that allow the microorganisms to generate metabolic energy, survive, and grow. Microorganisms procreate by carrying out complex, genetically regulated sequences of biosynthetic and assimilative intracellular processes. Each daughter cell has essentially the same macromolecular and elemental composition as its parent. Thus, integrated metabolism of all nutrients (e.g., carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, sulfur, oxygen, hydrogen, etc.) is implicit in microbial growth. The growth and survival of microorganisms drives the geochemical cycling of the elements and detoxifies many contaminant organic and inorganic compounds.

This simple growth and survival of microorganisms drives biogeochemical cycling of the elements. Understanding the detailed aerobic and anaerobic microbiological processes allows ecologists to anticipate the consequences of environmental change. Knowing the ecological, physiological, and biochemical rules and relationships of aerobic and anaerobic processes can contribute to our abilities to maintain and manage ecosystems.

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