PacSci Perspectives

Under The Surface: The Story Of Microbes

by | Nov 1, 2016

How important are the creatures we can’t see? Microbes (or microorganisms) make up an essential part of our ecosystem. Rachel Spietz, an oceanographer and graduate student at the University of Washington, studies these too-small-to-see (but essential) parts of our ecosystem. She is presenting an interactive exhibit at Life Sciences Research this weekend at Pacific Science Center. While this event often focuses on human health, Spietz will be focusing on smaller critters.

Microbes, defined as “microorganisms, especially a pathogenic bacterium,” are often thought of as “bad guys,” especially in the context of disease. “Microbes are essential to developing medicines, which many people know,” says Spietz, because learning about how diseases work helps us fight them.

Spietz’s work focuses mostly on the ecological impact of microbes, where they often have a positive role. “One of my favorite things about microbes is their ability to break down landfills,” Spietz explains. “This particularly affects ocean habitats, which I study.” Though garbage often piles up, it cannot do so indefinitely; microbes “digest” the garbage, bringing it back through the carbon cycle naturally. Oceanographers and biologists alike are fascinated by this phenomenon. Microbes keep land, beach, and ocean environments viable. Through this process, they are cycling nutrients back to us. Microbes connect us to our environment.

A microbe’s absorption of food can predict things as complex as volcanic eruption. Several years ago, Spietz worked on a project looking at the microbes growing around the Axial Seamount, an underwater volcano,” she says. “I pulled microbes out of the water and tested them; my data helped geologists learn about past and predict future eruptions.” The team collected lava from two kilometers under the sea, and Spietz studied the microbes coming up to the surface. “By seeing patterns in how the microbes use energy, you can start to figure out the history and future of the volcano.” You can watch this process happening live here.

While working on these kinds of teams, Spietz got to learn from geologists, physicists, microbiologists, and oceanographers. “Oceanography is very broad and interdisciplinary,” she says. That’s also one of her favorite parts about past Life Sciences Research Weekends. “The sheer number of disciplines represented was impressive.” Even more exciting, perhaps, was the engagement of young guests. “Parents actually had to pull their kids away from these educational displays.”

Pacific Science Center is proud to host our 10th annual Life Sciences Research Weekend, November 11-13, 2016. Register here for a chance to see Rachel Spietz’s microbes in action.