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IMiLi Aims To Address Microbial Education for All

A teacher standing in front of a class of children, some who have their hands up to answer a question.
Credit: 14995841 / Pixabay.
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Read time: 7 minutes

If nothing else, recent years have taught us that we are all at the mercy of microbes. But while illness and disease may be the first things that spring to mind when we think about bacteria, fungi and viruses, they also play a vital role in keeping us healthy, producing our food, synthesizing our drugs and useful chemicals, degrading our waste and touch pretty much every aspect of our lives. One thing that has become clear, however, is that understanding how they work, why they do what they do and how related factors are interconnected is important for all of us, not just the scientists in the lab, to act responsibly and make informed decisions. Be those personal choices that mean the difference between contracting food poisoning or a transmissible disease, or decision-making on a larger scale by those in powerful policy or funding positions whose choices impact the masses.

For many, our current education system falls short of furnishing young people who will one day go on to be those decision-makers, at home and in the workplace, with an adequate grasp of microbiology and its relevance to our daily lives. The International Microbiology Literacy Initiative (IMiLI) (soon to be accessible for all), however, is hoping to address this issue, bringing microbiology to the classroom for young and old in > 350 standalone class lessons (topic frameworks; TFs) organized into 20 broad subject groups including personal microbiology, human wellbeing, nutrition, food and beverages and biotechnology. In addition, there will be portrait galleries of microbes that are “actors” in the TFsimportant and exciting microbes with a serious claim to fame—recommendations for class excursions to reveal microbes in action in the regions and proposals for home and family-friendly projects.

We spoke to Professor Kenneth Timmis, emeritus professor at the Technical University of Braunschweig, Germany, creator and leader of the IMiLI and recipient of 2023's FEMS-Lwoff Award For Achievements In Microbiology, to find out why he thinks education on microbiology is important for all and how the iMiLi aims to address the issue.

Karen Steward (KS): For those who may not be familiar with it, can you outline what the IMiLI is?

Kenneth Timmis (KT): The IMiLI is currently a global group of hundreds of microbiologists contributing teaching resources to create an international curriculum in societally relevant microbiology. But it will eventually become a microbiology education ecosystem, consisting of interacting providers of teaching materials, IMiLI regional centers and their websites, educators, the taught and their families and friends and relevant educational authorities.

Flow diagram illustrating the component parts of the IMiLI education ecosystem.
The explicit aims of the IMiLI are to promote literacy in microbiology knowledge that is relevant to human, animal, plant and planetary wellbeing. It strives to create appropriate and freely available resources that can facilitate the effective teaching of microbiology in all schools worldwide that are able and willing to incorporate microbiology education. Its resources will also be used in adult education at all levels, including in universities.

The IMiLI is in the process of setting up regional centers to interface with the users of the educational resources being created and that will:

  • Translate the teaching resources and adapt them to local cultures.
  • Create local language websites that will host the teaching resources and form hubs of regional microbiology education ecosystems that will promote the curriculum and support educators and the taught.
  • Interact with end users to obtain feedback for the further evolution of the teaching resources.
  • Interact with education authorities to promote the incorporation of IMiLI resources into existing curricula.

KS: How did the IMiLI come to be and who is contributing to the content that will be available to educators?

KT: The IMiLI was launched with an editorial authored by an international group of leading microbiologists setting out the need case for microbiology literacy in society. It is the global microbiology community that is contributing the content.

KS: Why do you feel that improving understanding of microbiology in the general population, starting in childhood, is important?

KT: The biosphere of planet Earth is a microbial world. To understand our (or more accurately, their) world, how the biosphere functions, our place in it, how we influence its development and how we can live more sustainably with the other organisms with which we share it, we need to understand the microbes, what they do and what they can do. Microbes cover the surfaces (and sometimes the interiors) of all organisms – their microbiomes – and pervasively influence their wellbeing. Moreover, through their driving of biogeochemical cycles, microbes determine the wellbeing of the surface of the planet itself. Essentially, all of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) involve issues that are directly or indirectly impacted by microbial activities, as outlined in this special edition of Microbial Biotechnology. The deployment of microbial technologies will be essential to the attainment of the SDGs.

Moreover, our interactions with microbes are personal and key to our individual wellbeing; microbes touch our lives regularly in very many ways, mostly positively but occasionally negatively when we experience an infectious disease.

To develop informed, evidence-based policies and decisions on key issues at all levels — personal, family, community, nation, planet — to optimize wellbeing, confront crises and put ourselves on a sustainable development trajectory, we need to understand the involvement of microbes in the processes under discussion.

Moreover, responses to some of the more important crises humanity faces (e.g., global warming-induced loss of living space and fertile agricultural land) will necessitate significant societal changes (higher taxes, higher cost of living, changes in food practices, increased immigration, etc.), changes whose success will depend upon societal acceptance and engagement. Acceptance and engagement will require that the public understand the issues, the solution options and the consequences of not adopting the solutions. Many of the issues faced have a microbial component.

Literacy in societally relevant microbiology is essential for humanity.

KS: How do you anticipate that the lessons outlined by the IMiLI can be incorporated into our formal education systems? Have you met any areas of resistance from educators, officials or parents?

KT: On one hand, school curricula are rather rigid in many countries and teachers are overburdened, so some people consider significant changes in curricula will be difficult to achieve. On the other hand, there is a growing awareness that current curricula are no longer fit for purpose, and no longer prepare children for the challenges and needs of adulthood and employment. Interestingly, the UN has recently started to stress that sustainability needs to be taught in school, which is obviously a change in curriculum. The European Commission is stressing the need for both curriculum change and lifelong learning as a key element of its strategy to respond to the needs of a rapidly changing world. There is no doubt that curricula must change, it is only a question of when, although speeds of change are likely to vary from country to country. Undoubtedly, there needs to be greater investment in teaching, because education is central to societal wellbeing, and investment in education in many countries has stagnated over recent years; witness the growth in class sizes. Greater investment in teaching will not only allow significant improvements in education but will also facilitate curriculum reform.

KS: Could you take us through an example of how a microbial topic framework might be addressed in the classroom and the types of teaching materials that may be included?

KT: A key feature of TFs is their relevance to children and/or importance to society, so they all have on the first page, for the teacher to show the class, an image and an image-related question that establishes the relevance of the topic to be taught. The teacher then presents the microbiology issues associated with the topic of the TF, for example, on pet dogs:

  • Dog-mediated microbial diversity enrichment of home and family microbiomes, and the importance of microbial diversity for the development of immune systems of young children.
  • Dog infections, some of which are zoonotic (relevance to COVID-19; One Health, etc.).
  • Pet infection prevention by vaccines (most children experience multiple episodes of vaccination).
  • The environmental footprint of dog food production (fertilizers, eutrophication, oxygen minimum zones, biodiversity losses, pollution with agrochemicals [plant crops], methane production and global warming, pollution with growth promoters like hormones and antibiotics [which promote development and transmission of antimicrobial resistance, AMR], animal wastes [feed animals]).
  • The dietary energy and agricultural resource commitment of dog food production and its consequence for food security.
  • Pollution of public spaces by dog feces and urine.
  • Connectivity: the chemical industry (agrochemicals), mining industry (phosphorus), energy industry (supply of the various industries with energy, but also agricultural biogas production), environment (pollution with all the chemicals involved in agriculture and wastes and their microbial recycling), biodiversity, food production, wellbeing (pet dogs contribute to mental and physical health), disease and its prophylaxis and therapy.

There is then a discussion of the relevance of the issues presented for:

  • The SDGs
  • Decisions and policies (individual, community, nation)
  • Stewardship and stakeholder awareness

The TF ends with a selection of web resources that complement the text provided and can be selected on the basis of the age/stage of the class.

KS: What consequences do you think we might face in the future if we fail to tackle the issue of microbiology literacy?

KT: The most important thing is that society will lack the knowledge and understanding to make informed policies and decisions at all levels, and to understand decisions made by others on their behalf or that affect them. They will also not be able to recognize and take advantage of opportunities presented by microbes. Crucially, a lack of knowledge is the vacuum in which misinformation, bias, conspiracy theories and prejudice flourish.

Examples of consequences of failure to attain literacy in societally relevant microbiology may include:

  • The SDGs are not on track to be attained by 2030. If maximal exploitation of microbial technologies, especially in areas like poverty, hunger, access to healthcare and provision of clean water, is not achieved, attainment is likely to be significantly prolonged.
  • The global spread of infectious diseases is fueled in part by inadequate surveillance and containment measures at their origins. Without strategic development and deployment of advanced pathogen detection systems and containment strategies, especially those taking into consideration pathogen ecology, we risk the health burden of regular and new epidemics/pandemics.
  • Misuse of antibiotics will continue or even increase, amplifying the spread of antimicrobial resistance and the mortality and economic costs that will ensue. Everyone, but especially politicians, farmers and aquaculture operations, needs to understand the global consequences and act accordingly.
  • Economic stimulation measures during/following economic slowdown involving, e.g., the building of highways that subsequently are not adequately used or not finished, instead of analyzing what will bring sustained economic improvement, which is often investment in knowledge-based sectors like biotechnology.

Professor Kenneth Timmis was speaking to Dr. Karen Steward, Senior Scientific Specialist for Technology Networks.

About the interviewee

Head shot of Professor Kenneth Timmis
Kenneth Timmis studied microbiology at Bristol University, undertook postdoctoral training at the Ruhr University Bochum, Yale and Stanford and headed research groups at the Max Planck Institute for Molecular Genetics in Berlin, the University of Geneva Medical Centre, the German National Research Centre for Biotechnology in Braunschweig (later, the Helmholtz Centre for Infection Research) and the Technische Universität Braunschweig. His research focus was environmental microbiology, microbial pathogenesis and vaccine development and microbial biotechnology, mostly involving genetic approaches. His group pioneered metabolic design strategies and tools and created novel bacteria able to remove environmental pollutants from contaminated soil and water. Professor Timmis is a Fellow of the Royal Society, the American Academy of Microbiology and the European Academy of Microbiology. He was founding editor and editor-in-chief of three primary research journals, namely Environmental Microbiology, Environmental Microbiology Reports and Microbial Biotechnology. In 2019, he set in motion the International Microbiology Literacy Initiative and is currently engaged in recruiting teaching resources for this initiative.