Microbial ecology is the study of the interactions of microorganisms (organisms that can not be visualised with the naked eye including bacteria, archaea and eukaryotes) within an ecosystem.
Examples of microbial ecosystems are many and varied, and in many cases are not immediately obvious. For example, well recognised microbial ecosystems include the interaction of lactose-fermtning bacteria and milk to produce yoghurt, or the community of microorganisms in municipal plants. And some not so obvious examples like microbial communities that form the base of the food web in deep-sea hydrothermal vents.
However the reality is microbial ecosystems exist almost everywhere we look and that the world as we see it is intricately bound to the interactions of microorganisms wiht their surrounding ecosystems.
There are many examples of microbial ecosystems, realistically too many to mention. However, it would be safe to conclude that almost every ecosystem you can think of, whether they be in the deepest ocean, geothermal hotsprings, soils, humans, plants and animals, salt lakes, the air, the frozen lands of the Antarctic or even surfaces within your home, microbial communities influence is critical to the function of that environment.
This influence can be seen all around us. For examples, microbial communities colonise fuel-contaminated groundwater aquifers, degrading aromatic components such as benzene and toluene. Likewise, certain microbial species in the rumen of cows and sheep generate methane gas, a potent greenhouse gas, whereas other bacteria in the rumen help to degrade fodder which can then be used by the animal for energy. Some bacterial species fix nitrogen gas from the atmosphere in the rhizosphere of plants providing a readily available source of nitrogen for plants in the form of ammonia. Human health and physiology is also heavily influenced by the microbial communities in our gut, on our skin and in our nasopharyngeal system.
Microorganisms and microbial ecology is have a profound influence on our daily life and the world around us. If you would like to know more, have a look at the areas of research being undertaken by some of New Zealand's talented microbial ecologists.