FACULTY OF NATURAL SCIENCES
School of Biological Sciences
Subject Group: Microbiology
Microbiology at work: Bugs mean bucks
Though it seems almost unlikely, microbiology can mean big business. Consider this: microbiology can be applied in research, product development, production processes, and safety of goods. Let’s break it down.
Pharmaceutical companies employ a variety of scientists at research facilities and manufacturing plants.
One of their main drives are the development of products to improve human and animal health. The most common day example has to be antibiotics for the combat of various bacterial diseases. Because of the increasing problems of antibiotic resistant bacteria the pharmaceutical company is in a head-to-head race with micro-organisms to stay one step ahead. Advances in molecular biology have had significant impact in the production of medicines such as insulin that are produced by genetically modified micro-organisms.
On the starting side of product development microbiologist are involved in the bioprospecting for pharmaceutically useful compounds, screening organisms for compounds produced that may have pharmaceutical applications.
For the production processes of pharmaceutical compounds large scale culture of microbes are required. The operation of these fermenters is one of the fields where microbiology and engineering overlap. The scale-up from a laboratory process to production scale is no easy feat. Industrial microbiologists are also employed for the recovery and processing of the pharmaceutical compounds from the fermenters.
Microbiologists are also employed to evaluate new pharmaceutical compounds in trials before they are registered for human use.
Biotechnology start-up companies and “spin-outs”
In recent years there has been a dramatic increase in small to medium size biotechnology companies world-wide. These companies may either develop biopharmaceuticals or specialized instruments for use in health and biotechnology industries. In some cases universities set up companies referred to as “spin-outs” to commercially exploit aspects of academic research.
Besides medical and pharmaceutical applications, microbiologists are involved in the production and quality testing of useful compounds including amino acids, antiseptics, organic acids, vitamins, and proteins.
Besides useful compounds, the production of enzymes for industrial and research use also represent a business in it’s own right. The products from these companies can be used in diagnostic procedures, manufacturing processes and molecular techniques such as DNA fingerprinting. Some of the enzymes produced have application in our own household, for example enzymes in washing detergents. Some of the enzyme are even used in the food industry.