Viruses, bacteria, microbes, fungus… Who can tell the difference between these tiny little things that are everywhere around us? Let’s take two minutes to learn a little bit more about our invisible friends and enemies.

Microbes include pathogens, mold, bacteria and algae…Right? Or are microbes, viruses and fungi just different kinds of pathogens? And can’t we just get rid of all of them with soap and hand sanitizer?

Let’s clear up the confusion and discuss if and how we may need to control them.

The definition of microbes (or micro-organisms) is not a very specific one. It’s basically anything that is alive and tiny – so small that they can only be seen through a microscope. They make up 60% of the organic matter on earth and include two to three billion species. They live everywhere from the deepest parts of the sea to inside our bodies. Microbes are split into different subcategories, which include bacteria, viruses and fungi.

And we couldn’t live without them. They are in our food (for example cheese, yoghurt, wine and beer) and medicines (for instance antibiotics and vitamins). They are an essential part of our digestive system – helping us to digest foods – as well as our waste streams – breaking down toxic waste.

That being said, we would sometimes do better without some of them!

This brings us to pathogenic micro-organisms, also known as harmful micro-organisms causing infections or producing toxins. Diseases such as influenza or HIV/AIDS and food poisoning are in fact caused by microbes. There is also increasingly strong evidence that microbes contribute to non-infectious diseases including some forms of cancer and coronary heart disease.

This is why microbial control is so important. Take food poisoning; the reason it’s so rare today is that we understand how microbes work and how to protect ourselves against them. The same goes for protecting ourselves from pathogen-causing nosocomial (hospital acquired) infections. Microbial control has a critical role to play.

And who knew the same technologies are also a must for the environment? It will often go unnoticed but getting rid of microbes can help society save energy and resources. Think about water recycling. Nowadays, the majority of industrial water is captured and continuously recycled. In the chemical industry, for instance, more than 80% of water used for cooling and steam generation is now recycled. To achieve this, microbes must be eliminated to avoid biologically-induced corrosion, scale deposits and slime formation.