The important role of microorganisms in a waterway

Close up of a microbe

Eric Erbe, digital colorization by Christopher Pooley, both of USDA, ARS, EMU

Looking through an electron microscope magnified 10,000 times allow us to see what a cluster of Escherichia coli bacteria really looks like.

When we’re swimming in a river or lake, we really don’t want to think about all those little microorganisms surrounding us, do we? But they play an important role in the health and life of any body of water.

Those little microbes do some pretty big jobs for the world. They process elements and nutrients into new forms, decompose bigger organisms that have died by turning them into nutrients and pump oxygen into our atmosphere.

A healthy river will have the right mix of microorganisms to keep all environmental factors in balance. When one or more of these factors gets out of balance, the consequences – both good and bad – can ripple along to other animals and plants living in the river or using the river for its water or commerce.

The process is like going to the doctor for check-up. Just as a doctor is interested in measuring the changing factors in your body to gauge your health, watching the progression of changes in a river’s microorganisms can tell if the water is getting healthier or sicker.

The stuff we as humans put into the river can have a big impact on the balance of microorganisms in the water. One of the goals of this project is to study this impact.

Click here to see some fun animations that demonstrate just how small these microorganisms can really be.