Life scientists are increasingly adopting the belief that microorganisms are virtually everywhere and are responsible for just about everything. This, plus the maturation of molecular- level methods of working with these tiny creatures, is a source of considerable optimism for microbiologists as the 93rd general meeting of the American Society for Microbiology (ASM) convenes in Atlanta this week.
What they see, in career terms, is that progress in their field is bound to yield an ever-widening world of research opportunities and a correspondingly bright employment future.
Gail Cassell, a professor of microbiology at the University of Alabama, Birmingham, and president-elect of ASM, says she's "extremely optimistic" about job opportunities in the field and predicts the coming decade will be a "golden age" for microbiology.
From 27,000 members in 1981, ASM has grown to 42,000 members today and is the world's largest single membership organization in the biological sciences. It includes microbiologists at the bachelor's, master's, and doctoral levels. The organization's large size and recent rapid growth reflect the importance of microorganisms to many scientific enterprises.
Microbiologists at all levels of training have long been employed by clinical medicine and public health organizations as well as by the food, agriculture, and chemical industries. Employment has also been steady in government agencies that regulate those industries. They include clinical medicine, food production, and the emerging biotechnology and biore-mediation industries, microbiologists say.
Furthermore, increasingly sophisticated molecular methods of classifying and genetically altering microorganisms have opened new realms of possibility for microbiology, they point out. These methods include the quick typing of disease-causing organisms, which allows doctors to more promptly begin patient treatment or to trace the origins of epidemics. Researchers are also using microorganisms to produce pharmaceutically active compounds that stimulate growth of agricultural, products, such as corn; act as vectors in gene therapy treatment; and degrade chemical wastes
Additionally, jokes Stanley Maloy, an associate professor of microbiology at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, the microbes themselves will cooperate to ensure that microbiologists will always have new research to tackle. "Microbes evolve fast enough so new problems will always be there," he says.
Although research advances in any scientific discipline do not necessarily translate into jobs for its practitioners, many microbiologists predict that recent progress in their field will do so. This prognosis, they say, stems largely from the fact that an especially broad variety of positions for microbiologists exists outside academia, where employment is expected to remain sluggish.
Microbiology Job Arena In the early to mid-1980s, microbiologists were among the founding scientists in the biotechnology and agricultural biotechnology industries. Institutions in all of these sectors still report employing these scientists at the technical, scientific, and executive levels. And, though salaries vary widely, personnel directors say, microbiology compensation is on a par with that of other scientists at all levels.
Since current research advances primarily increase the efficiency and range of applicability of microbiology techniques, they should increase the range of job possibilities as well, scientists say. That's especially true, some of them point out, because microbiology studies apply chiefly to problems that won't go away, such as infectious disease, food safety issues, and chemical pollution, and because microbes evolve so fast that new uses for them and new problems stemming from them continually are coming to the fore.
According to James Barbaree, a former lab director for the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta and currently an associate professor of microbiology at Auburn University in Alabama, the coming decade should see "lots of jobs characterizing base sequencing of DNA to reliably detect small amounts of organisms." But that doesn't mean that the more traditional microbiological skills will be neglected in the job marketplace, Barbaree adds, since "you still have to grow the organisms and key them out in the traditional way as well."
Some scientists believe that, in some specialties, such as food microbiology, employment opportunities are likely to be so strong that job openings may actually outnumber the applicants. "The only problem people from the food science department have is deciding where to work," says Edmund Zottola, a professor of food microbiology at the University of Minnesota.
As in many other biological disciplines, combining techniques of molecular genetics with more traditional methods--such as studying the ecology of microbes or the ways in which they cause disease--is key to capitalizing on research gains, microbiologists say. And some see solid evidence that the new generation of scientists recognizes the necessity for such combined expertise.
According to Maloy, "Twenty years ago there were molecular geneticists and there were microbiologists who looked at pathogenesis. Now people are being both."
Producing young scientists with that kind of varied training should help the field make research advances pay off in the job market, Maloy and others agree. These scientists, they say, will be well positioned to tackle such problems as disease control and bioremediation of waste.
However, despite general optimism, scientists also stress that the field is not immune to overall financial realities that may limit government and industry microbiology research, even in critical areas such as developing vaccines and cleaning up hazardous waste at military sites. "The down-side of all of this is in facing shrinking budgets," says ASM president-elect Cassell.
As in other disciplines, those depleted budgets are likely to take the greatest toll on the young scientists who hope for academic careers, scientists say. Edward Birge, an associate professor of microbiology at Arizona State University, Tempe, says that while those students "easily find good postdocs," some later move "from temporary teaching position to temporary teaching position" as they seek a faculty post.
While few expect the university job market to grow soon, microbiologists are optimistic about chances for job growth in medical and public health institutions, pharmaceutical companies, food companies, the agricultural industry (including seed companies and agricultural biotechnology firms), and private and government organizations doing waste bioreme-diation.
In the medical field, ASM's Cassell sees both the upside and the downside of current medical technologies. But both the problems and opportunities should mean a growing job market for microbiologists in clinical settings, Cassell says. On one hand, she says, the advance of gene therapy provides opportunities for microbiologists because viruses and microbial systems are used to deliver them. However, new therapies that have immunosuppressive effects on the body are creating a new problem for microbiologists to solve: how to combat the rise in opportunistic infections that accompanies the immunosuppression.
Many microbiology training programs, whose graduates traditionally have gone on to academia, report placing a steady fraction of Ph.D. graduates, often more than half, in industry labs over the past decade.
Albert Ades, acting chairman of the department of microbiology at the University of Maryland, College Park, for example, says that at his school "the number taking industry jobs is certainly increasing relative to eight to 10 years ago."
It was a gene spliced in the E. coli bacterium that gave birth to recombinant DNA and the biotechnology industry, so it's no surprise that biotechnology companies traditionally employ a large contingent of microbiologists among their technical, scientific, and executive staffs.
As many biotechnology companies move beyond the pure research stage into development and manufacturing, many now offer more jobs for microbiologists at the bachelor's and master's level in the manufacturing area, while keeping their research staffs at relatively constant numbers.
For Ph.D. microbiologists, that makes the biotechnology employment outlook "fairly steady," according to Christopher Giffin, associate manager of research affairs at Amgen Inc. in Thousand Oaks, Calif. "It's a good market," says Giffin, "but not quite the same as 10 to 15 years ago."
Traditional Industry Jobs Traditional pharmaceutical, chemical, seed, and food processing companies often have the luxury of keeping larger general research staffs than do biotechnology startups, since the traditional companies have already made the necessary investment in manufacturing facilities. That may make such companies the source of more new microbiology positions in the next decade because many are increasing their involvement in biotechnology and other newly discovered capabilities of microorganisms. According to Michael Montague, director of research operations at Monsanto Corporate Research, a division of Monsanto Co. in St. Louis, microbiologists increasingly are working in industry labs on research involving human health care, plant pathology, and treatment for chemical wastes.
Among the microbiology researchers especially sought after by his company, Montague says, are those with clinical backgrounds who can help develop new drug therapies, those with molecular biology expertise in expression of proteins, plant virologists, and plant fungus experts.
Monsanto and many other companies are carrying out new, large- scale fermentation projects aimed at increasing microbes' production of pharmacologically active compounds. This, according to Montague and others, is spawning a growing need for bacterial physiologists--experts in the factors that foster and limit the growth of bacteria, a group of researchers some scientists say is in short supply.
ASM president-elect Cassell sees a potential shortage in another microbiology specialty recently found to be pharmaceutically related--mycology, the study of fungus. Citing the recent discovery of a fungus that manufactures the promising anticancer compound taxol, Cassell says she expects pharmaceutical manufacturers to be- gin to focus on fungi as agents for drug development.
Meanwhile, Monsanto's Montague and other scientists say that the real growth area for microbiology employment may be in the treatment of chemical wastes. In his company and elsewhere, Montague says, waste treatment is "going to be a growing area. We need new products--both for cleaning up pollutants made today and pollutants made previously. And many may involve microbes."
Bioremediation of wastes has been "getting wider acceptance," says David Balkwill, a professor of biological sciences at Florida State University in Tallahassee. One sign of this, Balkwill notes, is that "there's increasing research even in chlorinated compounds and PCBs." These were unthinkable targets for biological cleanup only a few years ago, he says.
Many companies doing bioremediation are not research-oriented, he says. Instead, he says, "they found some things that work, so they just pump it in." But, he adds, some of the more prominent bioremediation companies do pursue research, as does the federal government, which faces a chemical cleanup nightmare at military sites and Department of Energy labs.
For his part, Balkwill says, he's enjoyed adding consulting work in bioremediation to his basic research specialty, microbial ecology. "It's exciting and rewarding to see predictions made in the lab actually work," he says. "That's what attracted me."
Says Balkwill: "There seems to be a large demand for people with experience [in bioremediation]. I've had companies call up and ask if I had people who'd done a dissertation with practical applications. The demand is way ahead of the supply now."
Marcia Clemmitt is a freelance science writer based in Washington, D.C.