Environmental Biology, March 2019


Microbes and their activities have pervasive, remarkably profound and generally positive effects on the functioning, and thus health and well‐being, of human beings, the whole of the biological world, and indeed the entire surface of the planet and its atmosphere. Collectively, and to a significant extent in partnership with the sun, microbes are the life support system of the biosphere. This necessitates their due consideration in decisions that are taken by individuals and families in everyday life, as well as by individuals and responsible bodies at all levels and stages of community, national and planetary health assessment, planning, and the formulation of pertinent policies. However, unlike other subjects having a pervasive impact upon humankind, such as financial affairs, health, and transportation, of which there is a widespread understanding, knowledge of relevant microbial activities, how they impact our lives, and how they may be harnessed for the benefit of humankind – microbiology literacy – is lacking in the general population, and in the subsets thereof that constitute the decision makers. Choices involving microbial activity implications are often opaque, and the information available is sometimes biased and usually incomplete, and hence creates considerable uncertainty. As a consequence, even evidence‐based ‘best’ decisions, not infrequently lead to unpredicted, unintended, and sometimes undesired outcomes. We therefore contend that microbiology literacy in society is indispensable for informed personal decisions, as well as for policy development in government and business, and for knowledgeable input of societal stakeholders in such policymaking. An understanding of key microbial activities is as essential for transitioning from childhood to adulthood as some subjects currently taught at school, and must therefore be acquired during general education. Microbiology literacy needs to become part of the world citizen job description. To facilitate the attainment of microbiology literacy in society, through its incorporation into education curricula, we propose here a basic teaching concept and format that are adaptable to all ages, from pre‐school to high school, and places key microbial activities in the contexts of how they affect our everyday lives, of relevant Grand Challenges facing humanity and planet Earth, and of sustainability and Sustainable Development Goals. We exhort microbiologists, microbiological learned societies and microbiology‐literate professionals, to participate in and contribute to this initiative by helping to evolve the basic concept, developing and seeking funding to develop child‐friendly, appealing teaching tools and materials, enhancing its impact and, most importantly, convincing educators, policy makers, business leaders and relevant governmental and non‐governmental agencies to support and promote this initiative. Microbiology literacy in society must become reality.