Why engineers need to study microbiology?

It is a rewarding and fulfilling experience to teach microbiology to undergraduate engineering students. However, some students may find it difficult to understand microbiology concepts. Lack of relevant background knowledge may contribute to the learning difficulty, while not being able to see the links between engineering and microbiology is a more important, although not obvious, reason for such a difficulty. I have to admit that it is not easy to see the link between protein synthesis and nitrogen removal in wastewater. But microbiological principles are essential for the success of environmental engineers. As a professional engineer who had previously worked in an engineering consulting firm, I can’t overemphasize the importance of microbiology. If you consider the fact that more than 99% of secondary wastewater treatment systems in the world are biological wastewater treatment systems, then you may realize that microbiology is the key for the optimal performance of these systems. Some NASA scientists even use anaerobic digestion systems to treat wastewater in spacecrafts for exploring Mars. For me, it is more than normal to utilize anaerobic microorganisms for such a job, as microorganisms don’t need oxygen and oxygen can even kill them. These microorganisms just need electron donors and carbon sources, and will live happily thereafter. There were some efforts in the 70′s to use physical-chemical systems to treat wastewater in the States, but the results were far from satisfactory. So far biological wastewater treatment systems are still the most cost-effective systems to clean water, even though we still don’t fully understand how to best optimize these systems.

Apart from the above-mentioned reasons for environmental engineers, it is fun to learn something drastically different. If you haven’t taken any modules from Colleges of Science and Liberal Arts, then microbiology can give you a little bit of a flavor with ingredients of art, math, science, engineering, and even sociology. What’s even more interesting is that microbes are everywhere but they are not under our control! They are in us, they are on us, but we can do nothing about them for most of the time. We can kill them, but they will come back. Even before we develop our weapons, such as antibiotics, some of them developed antibiotic resistance back in 4,000,000 years ago. We share almost the same mechanisms with bacteria at the cell level, yet we still don’t know all their secrets. They have lived long time ago before we were born, and they will still be there after we die for many years. For them, we are just passerby. Isn’t it fun to learn a little more about our silent friends? Wouldn’t it be a luxury to see these beautiful creatures that have been there for 3.5 billion years?