Microbes are tiny organisms—too tiny to see without a microscope, yet they are abundant on Earth. They live everywhere—in air, soil, rock, and water. Some live happily in searing heat, while others thrive in freezing cold. Some microbes need oxygen to live, but others do not. These microscopic organisms are found in plants and animals as well as in the human body.
Some microbes cause disease in humans, plants, and animals. Others are essential for a healthy life, and we could not exist without them. Indeed, the relationship between microbes and humans is delicate and complex.
Most microbes belong to one of four major groups: bacteria, viruses, fungi, or protozoa. A common word for microbes that cause disease is "germs." Some people refer to disease-causing microbes as "bugs." "I've got the flu bug," for example, is a phrase you may hear during the wintertime to describe an influenza virus infection.
Since the 19th century, we have known microbes cause infectious diseases. Near the end of the 20th century, researchers began to learn that microbes also contribute to many chronic diseases and conditions. Mounting scientific evidence strongly links microbes to some forms of cancer, coronary artery disease, diabetes, multiple sclerosis, and chronic lung diseases.
NIAID is the federal government's lead agency for conducting and funding research on many infectious diseases, including their causes, diagnoses, treatments, and prevention methods. Biomedical research supported by NIAID provides the tools necessary to develop diagnostic tests, new and improved treatments, vaccines, and other means to combat the microbial threats of today and tomorrow.
Learn more about microbe research at NIAID.
Last Updated April 03, 2012
Last Reviewed July 21, 2010