The Microbial world has created the foundations for our life on Earth – ruling the functioning of our ecosystems and other living organisms.
As the first life form to appear on our planet, Microbes have propelled evolution and have the power to unlock solutions to some of the biggest environmental challenges that we face today.
With this being said, there is often still a misunderstanding about what microbes are and their contribution towards our environment and health. The majority of microbes are more helpful than harmful, meaning that these misconceptions disguise the vital role that microbes play in creating and maintaining healthy habitats.
So, what are microbes really and how can we work with these organisms to create a more regenerative planet?
What is a microbe?
The word ‘microbe’ is derived from two Greek words, ‘mikros’ and ‘bios’, meaning ‘small life’. In simple terms, this is literally what it is.
A microbe (or microorganism) is a microscopic living organism that is so small it is not visible to the naked eye. Microbes come in all sorts of shapes and sizes and can exist as single cells (unicellular), clusters or in multicellular, complex organisms.
Microbes can adapt to a wide range of environmental conditions which results in huge microbial diversity on Earth. They can be grouped into several types including Bacteria, Archaea, Fungi, Viruses and Protists.
Where do they live?
Microbes are all around us. Millions (if not trillions) of different species can be found in all parts of the biosphere, including soil, rock and marine environments. However, environmental conditions can restrict microbial distribution meaning that not every microorganism can thrive in every ecosystem. For example, some microbes are found in extreme environments, known as extremophiles. Only specific species can survive in these conditions due to their ability to grow in either high-temperature environments, or below zero temperatures. Similarly, some species survive, and thrive, in high-salt environments but not in freshwater environments (and vice versa). This results in a diverse range of microbial species with varying optimal conditions for activity and growth.
Some microbes live in or on other living organisms including plants, animals and humans. When it comes to our bodies, research suggests that there are more microbes living on our skin than there are people on the Earth. It’s hugely important that we keep our bodies, and particularly our microbiome, rich with diverse microbes as they play a critical role in the functioning of our physical and psychological health.
Why are microbes so important for the climate?
Microbes play a vital role in sustaining our planet. They participate in the Earth’s element cycles such as the carbon cycle and the nitrogen cycle. This impacts the outcome of global processes, such as climate change, because microbes maintain carbon equilibrium in the atmosphere.
Microbes also recycle other organisms’ waste products through decomposition. This is a process that involves breaking down dead organisms, converting them back into their simple compounds and enabling these compounds to be absorbed as nutrients for the growth of new plants and animals. In addition, there’s scope to clean harmful pollutants from the atmosphere through bioremediation. This term refers to naturally occurring or introduced microbes that consume and break down environmental pollutants from many habitats including air, water and soil.
How does Shellworks work with microbes?
We collaborate with nature at every stage of our process, from ideation through to execution. If it weren’t for the millions of microbes that we work with, we certainly wouldn’t be where we are today. Our material, Vivomer, is made and unmade by microbes.
The magic all begins in a cell. In nature, some microbes have the ability to build up and accumulate cell granules, composed of a carbon-rich material, which can be extracted to formulate our products. This means that Vivomer products are stable in use but once they are disposed of, naturally occurring microbes in the environment see them as a food source and enzymatically break them down, leaving no microplastics behind. This decomposition happens in environments, such as your home compost, that are warm, moist and have adequate levels of oxygen.
Why are microbes so integral to what we do?
According to the UNEP, every year, more than 280 million tonnes of plastic products become waste. Petroleum-based plastic packaging does not biodegrade; instead it disintegrates into small, microplastic pollution in the environment that poses a serious threat to ocean, soil, human and animal health. With 95% of beauty packaging being thrown away, we recognised this as a high risk category for plastic waste and pollution.
Working with microbes has enabled us to develop a material that behaves in the same way as plastic but has none of the negative impacts on the environment and human health. As our material is broken down by microbes through enzymatic degradation, it means that no microplastics persist and a regenerative loop can be created.
Through understanding the vital role that microbes play in sustaining nature’s cycles, we’ve drawn – and will continue to draw – inspiration to create the next-generation of materials that rethink the way that humans make, use and dispose of plastic.
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UNEP, 2023. Everything you need to know about plastic pollution. https://www.unep.org/news-and-stories/story/everything-you-need-know-about-plastic-pollution
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