The current most prominent representative of the microbial world, SARS-CoV-2, has managed to get the majority of the world’s population to discuss the health hazards, the transmission routes and the stability of this single virus variant.
Despite rapidly growing scientific advances, in detailed issues (example: disinfection of protective masks) an astonishing number of knowledge gaps exist. However, SARS-CoV-2 is only one representative of an unimaginable diversity of microbial beings. Their biodiversity is estimated to be more than 1012 species and the number of individuals is around 1032 bacteria and viruses. These numbers challenge our imagination: If all viruses were to be lined up tightly packed, the length of the row would be one billion light years.
Despite these immense numbers, microbes remain invisible for most people in their everyday lives. Their presence is often only recognised if a few of their representatives harm our health. However, only the symptoms of a disease caused by the pathogens are detected. The pathogens themselves can only be detected in patient samples, in products, on surfaces or in the air using sophisticated analysis techniques.
Despite their large biodiversity, until now only a few hundred species have appeared as human pathogens. Here it must be noted that more than 99.9999 % of the worldwide estimated microbe species are still unknown. This "dark matter of the microbial world" is sure to conceal more diverse representatives, which can challenge global society in a similar way to the current SARS-CoV-2. In addition to human health, the health of (livestock) animals and plants must be protected, as their limited diversity (5 crop plants represent 75 % of the world harvest) favours the effects of infectious diseases.
Due to their ubiquitousness in the air, in water, in the soil, on humans, animals, plants and on all surfaces, undesirable microbial life forms constitute a particular challenge for global material flows and in particular for many sought after material cycles. The current pandemic has once again clearly shown how easily pathogens can spread globally. In addition to infected persons, plants (for example, EHEC on shoots) and animals (examples: bird flue, swine fever) are important spreading sources of known and new infectious agents. Only living beings (humans, animals, plants and microorganisms) are directly affected by pathogens. Their excretions and waste produced by them can also be vehicles for the spreading of pathogens, as are all objects, products and environmental media that come into contact with them. Therefore, hygienic precautions must be applied reliably in occupational safety, in processing, in product safety and environmental protection. The SARS-CoV-2 pandemic has made it blatantly obvious that hygiene aspects must be optimised in many fields of activity, so that future pandemics have fewer consequences. In this context, the circular economy striven for reasons of material ecology can also entail risks, if all pathogens in the recycling are not rendered harmless for humans, animals and plants. Because viruses are only reproduced via the metabolism of the respective host organism, their occurrence in a material cycle will not increase. This is not the case for organisms with their own metabolism (bacteria, fungi, parasites), as these can repair damage that occurs and can mostly reproduce outside of their host. Such pathogens can then spread in the environment independently, which often means that defensive measures are no longer possible. For example, the infection of banana trees known as the Panama disease (banana wilt), threatens production in many growing areas.
Despite their diverse manifestations, pathogens have one thing in common: They are made up of comparatively unstable biomolecules. Although the stability of different proteins, lipids, nucleic acids can be highly different, knowledge of several very resistant representatives provides the opportunity of making justified assumptions on how to control such new types of pathogens. The bifa Umweltinstitut tests the efficacy of new disinfection methods and products in different fields of application and thus contributes to limiting hygienic risks.
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Dr. Klaus Hoppenheidt