About microbes: These are tiny organisms that can only been seen with the aid of a microscope. It would take more than 1,000 microbes placed end to end to equal the width of a sharpened pencil point. They are among the world’s oldest living things and are abundant almost everywhere.
Microbes can be found in the air, on and beneath the ground, in water, and in other living things. The majority of microbes live unknown to humans and are essential to healthy life on earth. A small number of them can be harmful to humans, animals, and plants. Microbes belong to four major groups: bacteria, viruses, fungi, and protozoa.
Disease-causing microbes: These are commonly called bugs or germs and are the cause of the flu and colds. Researchers with the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases cite mounting evidence these microbes are responsible for some form of cancer, coronary artery disease, diabetes, multiple sclerosis, and chronic lung disease.
The availability of oxygen and sufficient temperatures are vital to the survival of microbes. Disease-causing microbes typically live at temperatures between 68 and 100 degrees. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency requires a sustained temperature of 130.4 degrees for at least 3 days to kill the pathogens e-coli, salmonella and staphylococcus.
Composting microbes: The microbes used to break down carbon-based material often need oxygen and hot temperatures. The ones being used by Ted Carpenter (See related story, “Turning Idaho Trash Into Compost”) and other microbiologists are typically thermophiles that live between 113 and 176 degrees.
Composting is an aerobic, or oxygen-dependent, process that combines air, heat and moisture to break down matter, which is why compost heaps must be turned every few days to maintain sufficient temperature. Some microbiologists use microbes that thrive in higher temperatures because that speeds up the composting process. While the time microbes take to digest compost varies, scientists around the U.S. are still trying to determine if that process can be completed in days or weeks.
Idaho National Laboratory microbiologists, who are viewed within the scientific community as experts on the subject, say it’s scientifically possible to compost certain material in short periods of time. But they and many other scientists around the country are working to gauge the time it takes microbes to digest different volumes of waste.
Microbes are extremely resilient and mange to live in all kinds of environments including extreme cold and extreme heat conditions.
Some microbes need oxygen called aerobes while others can live without oxygen called anaerobes.
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