The field of microbiology has traditionally been concerned with and focused on studies at the population level. Information on how cells respond to their environment, interact with each other, or undergo complex processes such as cellular differentiation or gene expression has been obtained mostly by inference from population-level data. Individual microorganisms, even those in supposedly "clonal" populations, may differ widely from each other in terms of their genetic composition, physiology, biochemistry, or behavior. This genetic and phenotypic heterogeneity has important practical consequences for a number of human interests, including antibiotic or biocide resistance, the productivity and stability of industrial fermentations, the efficacy of food preservatives, and the potential of pathogens to cause disease. New appreciation of the importance of cellular heterogeneity, coupled with recent advances in technology, has driven the development of new tools and techniques for the study of individual microbial cells. Because observations made at the single-cell level are not subject to the "averaging" effects characteristic of bulk-phase, population-level methods, they offer the unique capacity to observe discrete microbiological phenomena unavailable using traditional approaches. As a result, scientists have been able to characterize microorganisms, their activities, and their interactions at unprecedented levels of detail.
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