Mighty small: Observing and modeling individual microbes becomes big science

Research output: Contribution to journalComment/debate


  • Caroline M. Plugge
  • Volker Grimm
  • Clara Prats
  • Johan H J Leveau
  • Thomas Banitz
  • Stephen Baines
  • James Clark
  • Alexandra Ros
  • Isaac Klapper
  • Chris J. Topping
  • Anthony J. Field
  • Andrew Schuler
  • Elena Litchman
  • Ferdi L. Hellweger

Colleges, School and Institutes

External organisations

  • Arizona State University
  • UC Davis
  • Aarhus Universitet
  • New Mexico State University Las Cruces
  • Universitat Politecnica de Catalunya
  • Department of Laboratory Medicine, Section of Microbiology, Immunology and Glycobiology, Lund University, Lund, Sweden.
  • Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research - UFZ
  • University of California, Davis
  • Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, Queens College of CUNY, Flushing, NY 11367, USA.
  • Mathematics Department
  • Department of Plant Production; Faculty of Bioscience Engineering; University of Ghent; Ghent 9000 Belgium
  • Aarhus University
  • Electronics and Photonics Department, Institute of High Performance Computing, ASTAR
  • Department of Civil and Structural Engineering
  • Department of Agrotechnology and Food Sciences
  • Wageningen University and Research Centre
  • Department of Ecological Modelling
  • Institute for Biochemistry and Biology
  • University of Potsdam
  • German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research (iDiv) Halle-Jena-Leipzig
  • Department of Physics and Nuclear Engineering
  • School of Agricultural Engineering of Barcelona
  • Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya-BarcelonaTech
  • Department of Plant Pathology
  • Department of Ecology and Evolution
  • Stony Brook University State University of New York
  • Plymouth Marine Laboratory
  • Temple University
  • Imperial College London
  • University of New Mexico
  • Kellogg Biological Station
  • Michigan State University
  • Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering
  • Northeastern University


Progress in microbiology has always been driven by technological advances, ever since Antonie van Leeuwenhoek discovered bacteria by making an improved compound microscope. However, until very recently we have not been able to identify microbes and record their mostly invisible activities, such as nutrient consumption or toxin production on the level of the single cell, not even in the laboratory. This is now changing with the rapid rise of exciting new technologies for single-cell microbiology (1, 2), which enable microbiologists to do what plant and animal ecologists have been doing for a long time: observe who does what, when, where, and next to whom. Single cells taken from the environment can be identified and even their genomes sequenced. Ex situ, their size, elemental, and biochemical composition, as well as other characteristics can be measured with high-throughput and cells sorted accordingly. Even better, individual microbes can be observed in situ with a range of novel microscopic and spectroscopic methods, enabling localization, identification, or functional characterization of cells in a natural sample, combined with detecting uptake of labeled compounds. Alternatively, they can be placed into fabricated microfluidic environments, where they can be positioned, exposed to stimuli, monitored, and their interactions controlled “in microfluido.” By introducing genetically engineered reporter cells into a fabricated landscape or a microcosm taken from nature, their reproductive success or activity can be followed, or their sensing of their local environment recorded.


Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)18027-18028
Number of pages2
JournalNational Academy of Sciences. Proceedings
Issue number45
Publication statusPublished - 5 Nov 2013

ASJC Scopus subject areas