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Knowledge of the physiology and metabolism of prokaryotes underpins our understanding of the roles and activities of these organisms in the environment, including pathogenic and symbiotic relationships, as well as their exploitation in biotechnology. Prokaryotic organisms include bacteria and archaea and, although remaining relatively small and simple in structure throughout their evolutionary history, exhibit incredible diversity regarding their metabolism and physiology. Such metabolic diversity is reflective of the wide range of habitats where prokaryotes can thrive and in many cases dominate the biota, and is a distinguishing contrast with eukaryotes that exhibit a more restricted metabolic versatility. Thus, prokaryotes can be found almost everywhere under a wide range of physical and chemical conditions, including aerobic to anaerobic, light and dark, low to high pressure, low to high salt concentrations, extremes of acidity and alkalinity, and extremes of nutrient availability. Some physiologies, e.g. lithotrophy and nitrogen fixation, are only found in certain groups of prokaryotes, while the use of inorganic compounds, such as nitrate and sulfate, as electron acceptors in respiration is another prokaryotic ability. The explosion of knowledge resulting from the development and application of molecular biology to microbial systems has perhaps led to a reduced emphasis on their physiology and biochemistry, yet paradoxically has enabled further detailed analysis and understanding of metabolic processes. Almost in a reflection of the bacterial growth pattern, the number of scientific papers has grown at an exponential rate, while the number of prokaryotic genome sequences determined is also increasing rapidly.
The science of the environment encompasses a huge number of biological, chemical and physical disciplines. For several years, scientists have been interested in large-scale environmental processes/phenomena, such as soil formation, global warming and global elemental cycling. Until recently, the role and impact of micro-organisms on these ‘global’ environmental processes has been largely ignored or, at best, underestimated. However, there is growing awareness that important environmental transformations are catalysed, mediated and influenced by micro-organisms, and such knowledge is having an increasing influence on disciplines other than microbiology, such as geology and mineralogy. Geomicrobiology can be defined as the study of the role that microbes have played and are playing in processes of fundamental importance to geology. As such, it is a truly interdisciplinary subject area, necessitating input from physical, chemical and biological sciences, in particular combining the fields of environmental and molecular microbiology together with significant areas of mineralogy, geochemistry and hydrology. As a result, geomicrobiology is probably the most rapidly growing area of microbiology at present. It is timely that this topic should be the subject of a Plenary Symposium volume of the Society for General Microbiology (SGM) to emphasize and define this important area of microbiological interest, and help to promote exciting collaborations between microbiologists and other environmental and Earth scientists.
There is growing awareness that important environmental transformations are catalysed, mediated and influenced by microorganisms, and geomicrobiology can be defined as the influence of microorganisms on geologic processes. This is probably the most rapidly growing area of microbiology at present, combining environmental and molecular microbiology together with significant areas of mineralogy, geochemistry and hydrology. This volume focuses on the function of microorganisms in the environment and their influence on 'global' processes. It will include state-of-the art approaches to visualisation, culture and identification, community interactions and gene transfer, and diversity studies in relation to key processes. This overview for researchers and graduate students will represent environmental microbiology in its broadest sense and help to promote exciting collaborations between microbiologists and those in complementary physical and chemical disciplines.
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