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Microbes reflect our contemporary world, its environmental and health risks

LED Stories

Microbes reflect our contemporary world, its environmental and health risks

Elias Hakalehto, PhD, Adj. Prof.

Microbiologist, Biotechnologist

CEO, Finnoflag Oy

Vice President, International Society of Environmental Indicators

First published on 17th of March, 2021

Spring is coming! But in many countries, at least in Europe, the temperatures still vary between 5 to 10 degrees Centigrade, which actually is optimum for the SARS-CoV-2 virus to spread and stay active. The third wave of the pandemics is rising in Italy, for instance. The vaccination has not yet offered wide enough protection, except in a few countries only. The effectivity of the vaccinations against modified viruses is still a question mark. Novel, dangerous variants emerging in devastating numbers in Brazil and elsewhere. Now it would be high time to revive the plans regarding future microbiological and related health threats.

Additional risks arise in the aftermath of the pandemics, such as antibiotics resistant bacterial infections of such horrible pathogens as whooping cough, diphtheria, tuberculosis and lung plague. Also, "long corona" is hampering the lives of many as the complications of the virus do not fully recover. Frequencies of autoimmunity issues are increasing among populations, and the combined new kinds of syndromes constitute diseases not known by the medical textbooks. In any case, they bother and harm us, and they may compromise our health for a long time. The public health policies have to cope with this new health picture, too. An increase in inflammation in adipose tissues, lungs or intestines may ruin our health, and the risks of organ failures are threatening just anybody. - The passive immunization tools or novel antibiotics have not actualized as we have hoped. It is not only a lack of resources but also a lack of will and good governance.

In microbiology, it is nearly all about gaining or keeping the balance. As the retired long-time professor of infection biology in Helsinki and a well-known master in diagnostic medicine, Professor Ville Valtonen has stated, 95% of human diseases have a relevant link to microbes. If we as individuals have a proper balance within our microbiome and between the microbes and our immunological, neuronal or hormonal networks, this could make us stronger to face the challenges caused by the distorted microbial kingdom.

Our human societies and economics have neglected for many decades the studies on the microbial ecosystems from the point of their positive effects on our living. They form a baseline of the balance in Nature and a standard for our communities' environmental health. For example, we have neither cleaned up adequately the surroundings where we have our homes located nor care of the natural diversity there. Consequently, the monotonous microbiological communities bounce back our hostile attitude in the form of epidemics (zoonotic viruses such as SARS-CoV-2, borreliosis, echinococci, antibiotic-resistant bacteria, pathogenic fungi, diseases of farm animals etc.). These are the emerging outcomes of the imbalanced environmental and climatological of our actions. They accelerate in vicious circles if not timely corrected.

It is our last chance to start caring about our environment, which is not directly visible to our eyes. We cannot see the microbes, but their effects on us and the global biosphere are most evident. Should learn from them and cooperate with them. For example, many anaerobic bacteria produce biological or "green" hydrogen. Microbial biotechnology could complement the petrochemical industries in producing necessary or valuable chemicals for the industries, or energy gases, or organic fertilizers. Moreover, microbial metabolism could produce a wider range of (degradable) plastics and other polymers than chemical catalysis. And they are produced by lower energies. If the side streams of the present or past industrial or other human activities could be exploited as raw materials, this could considerably add up our resources, increase Carbon assimilation and mitigate the climate risks.

A wonderful example of future ecosystem engineering could be found in the lake bottom "storage" of valuable biomass in Hiedanranta bay of lake Näsijärvi in Tampere, Finland. The cellulosic organic side stream of forest industries had accumulated up to 10 meters high sediment for about a century. A biorefinery could first utilize this energy-rich material for converting carbohydrates into organic acids and alcohols, which are important and valuable industrial chemicals. Then small power units would exploit the remaining energy in the form of methane, hydrogen and hytane, and electricity for local use.

The above-mentioned site is just three kilometres away from the city centre. Tampere's municipality has decided to build a most ecological suburb for 25000 dwellers onto the coastline industrial area wastelands and the artificial islands and platforms. The millions of tons of waste material in the lake bottom should first get removed from the futuristic urban housing area. Otherwise, it could cause bad odours, safety problems, and respiratory and other health risks due to aerosols. For example, the winter ice on the lake area close to the shore cannot produce ice layers thick enough because of the slow fermentation process in the lake bottom by the zero fibre deposits. The thinner ice cannot carry the skiing families or skating children or youngsters, or elderly fishermen, not mentioning the snow mobiles or cars which often use "ice roads" for some months each year in Finland and other Fennoscandia.

The Hiedanranta case in Tampere is a good example of the fragile relations between humans and natural principles and microbiological realities. The technological means and methods have been tested there,, e.g. in an extensive pilot project, "Zero waste from zero fibre" ordered by Tampere and co-founded by the Finnish Ministry of Agriculture Forestry in the "Blue bio-economy" project in 2018-19. The experimentation results were encouraging ones, suggesting that the entire operation in removing the waste sediment and converting it into an economic and ecological success is an achievable goal. The novel business options could thus produce remarkable environmental, social and economic value. In other words, the efforts to take care of the environment could be turned into a business activity that could increase the citizens' wealth and healthzens in many ways.

Such extensive projects as the Hiedanranta biorefinery naturally contain many issues to be solved. Developing cleaner future technologies using the microbes as assistants could become a game-changer on the way to new economic concepts and realities. This is because a clean milieu and strong health truly have a great value, also moneywise.  The springs of improved microbiological and total health are definitely related to the cleaner environment in the cities and areas worldwide. Consequently, a single case of activity and the choices in it constitute a starting point, which could reflect the positive effects beyond the horizon.

The industrial side streams' resources give us opportunities to move faster into a clean hydrogen economy, sustainable growth, and improved general health status of the population. There are signs, for example, that impurities in the air make the current viral respiratory infection worse and slow down the recovery. Thus, we could reuse the dirty tracks of the reckless past of our industrialization and turn it into a healthier and more affordable future. The positive health balance between us and the environment, between us and the myriads of microbes, could also prevent the onset of future epidemics. The balanced microbiomes could provide us with fountains of health, hygiene, and modern housing and transport opportunities. We urgently need new ideas and technologies which emerge from these reflections as we can see, our face mirrored in the surface of a clean lake.