Jargon unpacked


Scientists like to use a lot of jargon. Though I try to write in plain english whenever possible, I’ll admit to slipping in a multi-Latin prefix word or two every now and then. Here I’ll do my best to keep a running list of science jargon as it appears in my writing. Have a word you’d like me to define? Just ask.

“Have something to say and say it as clearly as you can. That is the only secret of style.” — Matthew Arnold (1822-88)

Microbe – Okay, I know at least half of you are thinking it. “Microbe” is probably the least scientifically accurate way to describe a microscopic organism. Myself and many other scientists use the term “microbe” very loosely because it provides a convenient shorthand, but in reality there are organisms that can be considered “microbes” across all domains of life. More accurate descriptors include bacteria and archaea, the two domains of life occupied solely by single celled microorganisms. However, it is important to keep in mind that fungi, protozoa and even some microscopic plants (algae) can be considered microbes.

Complicating matters even further, some organisms that are considered “microbes” are not microscopic at all! The best example of this is the microbes in Kingdom Fungi that produce spore bearing fruits (mushrooms). Ironically, the term microbe can even be used to describe the largest organism on earth: a fungus in eastern Oregon.

Don’t let all of this dismay you. When I use the term “microbe”, you can be fairly confident that I am referring to the small, single celled types, mostly bacteria and archaea. I’ll try to be as explicit as possible if I’m referring to one of the less prototypical microbes, so to speak.

Microbiome The term “microbiome” has become fairly popular of late. Microbiome refers to the community of microorganisms populating a given environment, with “environment” being a loose term that could describe anything from a soil particle to your mouth to the global ocean. Microbiome research has quite literally exploded over the past decade, due to the development of relatively cheap DNA sequencing technologies that allow scientists to determine the entire genetic makeup of an environmental sample. The challenge with microbiome research lies in linking the vast diversity of the microbial communities we are discovering to their ecological roles. For example, an important question in human microbiome research is how different communities of gut bacteria affect your overall  health and well-being. Simply being able to list every microbe that lives in your gut will not answer this question- although it’s a good start. To address specific questions such as the link between gut microbiota and human health, it is important for scientists to conduct experiments that track the linkage between risk factors (in this case, perhaps diet or exercise) and microbial community composition.

Biogeochemistry– Do not be intimidated by this mouthful of a word! While I may not address biogeochemistry directly in many of my posts, microbes and biogeochemistry go hand-in-hand. Biogeochemistry s the study of how elements essential to life cycle throughout the biosphere. Like its name suggests, biogeochemistry is an integrative science, drawing together elements of biology, geology and chemistry to understand earth-system processes. Biogeochemists work at many different scales, studying everything from microbial iron cycling on the ocean floor to the exchange of carbon between forests and the atmosphere worldwide.

Through their diverse modes of metabolism, microbes are involved in many biogeochemical processes life depends on, including soil nitrogen fixation, heavy metal detoxification, phosphorus weathering and carbon cycling. Their role in driving biogeochemical cycles is one of the primary reasons microbes and their metabolic diversity are interesting to humans.



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