A sustainable future with microbes at its core

Celebrating International Microorganism Day

Blog post by Connor Trotter, EASTBIO DTP PIPS intern

I’ve just started a 3-month placement at NCIMB Ltd – home to the UK’s National Collection of Industrial, Food and Marine Bacteria. With such an amazing microbial resource at my fingertips, to celebrate International Microorganism Day, I decided to delve into the culture collection, pick out a few interesting strains, and highlight some of the important applications that microorganisms have.

Microorganisms are Earth’s smallest, and most ancient lifeforms. Found across all major domains of the modern Tree of Life, the diversity of microbes is awe inspiring. Each species, be it a bacterium, fungus, archaeon, or alga, varies drastically in size, colour, and how it interacts with our planet. In all this uniqueness, there is incredible opportunity to capitalise on millennia of evolution to improve our daily lives. Many species in culture collections have raw untapped potential, just waiting to be applied to fields such as energy and health.

Paint by NCIMB Numbers

Pigments are big business, with applications ranging from food colours to paints. In recent years, there has been a big push for natural pigments in food products due to their more sustainable production and common health benefits. Whilst being pretty, many microbial pigments evolved to serve key metabolic roles. For example, pigments made by Purple Non-Sulfur Bacteria like Rhodobacter sphaeroides (NCIMB 8253) and Rhodospirillum rubrum (NCIMB 8255) help give these species their distinctive red colouration whilst protecting the cell from photooxidative stress through their antioxidant properties. This has led some of these pigments to be investigated as potential health supplements1 – meaning a cake coloured with microbially-derived bio-pigments would not only look good, but could also help you feel good too.

Rhodospirillum rubrum cultures grown photofermentatively in Ormerod media. Image: Connor Trotter

Clean-up Crew

Whilst humanity continues to pollute the planet, bacteria have evolved the uncanny ability to thrive under these conditions. Tackling pollution with traditional chemistry can be costly and involved, but bacteria enable passive bioremediation by simply existing alongside a pollutant. Microbacterium esteraromaticum (NCIMB 8186) may be a potential source of yellow pigments, but strains have also been found that, in concert with environmental bacteria, degrade harmful organophosphorus pesticides2. Such findings highlight the multifaceted nature of microbial metabolisms and how some species can be utilised for multiple purposes in a context-dependant manner.

Microbacterium esteraromaticum grown on ISP2 agar. Image: Connor Trotter

Even though bacteria excel at breaking down harmful molecules, this is not the only way they can help clean up our messes. Some bacteria, including various Pseudomonas spp., have evolved the amazing ability to gather and sequester heavy metals from their environment3 – reducing their abundance for other organisms. Such bacteria can be used to help clean contaminated areas before the heavy metals reach important species at the base of food networks, alleviating bioaccumulation of these toxic metals across many different animals, including us.

Bacterial Chemistry

Finally, an area I personally find the most exciting is the application of bacterial metabolisms to the field of chemistry. Many reactions within the chemical synthesis industry rely on harsh and energy intensive conditions which are incompatible with net zero climate goals. This is further compounded by an ever-increasing demand for everyday items made through these processes, meaning it is not possible to simply ban these processes for the sake of reducing emissions.

Fortunately, many important reactions can be completed by bacteria under ambient conditions. By using bacteria that are interfaced with sustainable chemical methods, a whole plethora of exciting green chemistries can be unlocked. With many chemical reactions still requiring the identification of biological equivalents, NCIMB strains could be potential stars for a sustainable future – we just need to look. Indeed, work is underway in various labs across the country to screen microbes from the NCIMB collection for novel biotransformations of industrially relevant molecules, all with the goal of unlocking a sustainable world with microbes at its core.


(1)        Caseiro, M.; Ascenso, A.; Costa, A.; Creagh-Flynn, J.; Johnson, M.; Simões, S. Lycopene in Human Health. LWT 2020, 127, 109323. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1016/j.lwt.2020.109323.

(2)       Cáceres, T. P.; Megharaj, M.; Malik, S.; Beer, M.; Naidu, R. Hydrolysis of Fenamiphos and Its Toxic Oxidation Products by Microbacterium Sp. in Pure Culture and Groundwater. Bioresour. Technol. 2009, 100 (10), 2732–2736. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biortech.2008.12.043.

(3)       Vélez, J. M. B.; Martínez, J. G.; Ospina, J. T.; Agudelo, S. O. Bioremediation Potential of Pseudomonas Genus Isolates from Residual Water,  Capable of Tolerating Lead through Mechanisms of Exopolysaccharide Production and Biosorption. Biotechnol. reports (Amsterdam, Netherlands) 2021, 32, e00685. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.btre.2021.e00685.

Connor Trottor

About the author

Connor is a PhD student in Stephen Wallace’s lab at the University of Edinburgh. He has joined NCIMB for a 3-month project as part of his EASTBIO DTP Placement in Industry for PhD Students (PIPS) internship. Connor has worked on screening more than 60 NCIMB strains during his PhD through a Business Interaction Voucher provided by the HVB Network. This work seeks to identify and combine microbial metabolic processes with biocompatible chemical catalysts to develop sustainable processes for chemical syntheses.

Many species in culture collections have raw untapped potential, just waiting to be applied to fields such as energy and health.