Dangerous microorganisms are in the news a lot. You’ve probably heard about the antibiotic resistant “superbugs” like MRSA and foodborne outbreaks such as E. coli contaminated produce. Because new microorganisms are being discovered all the time and they are developing more and more resistance to antibiotics, there has never been a more exciting time to study Clinical Microbiology.
Clinical Microbiology is the study of any microbes which can cause infection in humans. Because the focus is on human disease, this subject is often studied by the source of the specimen from the body – particular location, type of fluid or specific body tissue. Clinical microbiologists have to be able to tell the difference between normal microorganisms expected in a specimen and those causing an infectious disease. Classically, this is done by culturing the material on an artificial medium in the laboratory and solving the "mystery" of which bacteria, fungus, virus, or parasite may be the culprit in an illness. Following culture, the "suspect" organism is further tested by various manual or automated methods to determine exactly what species it is and sometimes what antibiotics can be used to treat it. For example, E.coli are normal microorganisms in some parts of the body all the time, but when an outbreak of foodborne illness occurs, the medical lab scientist may culture the suspected food and perform specific tests in order to determine if a different, dangerous strain of the E. coli is responsible.
Traditional microbiological culture is still performed, but a whole host of new methods have become important tools in clinical microbiology including rapid molecular testing for slow growing organisms and genetic analysis testing to study the epidemiology of a disease outbreak. As we discover more and more about microorganisms and the threat of bioterrorism is real and present, there has never been a greater need for skilled clinical microbiologists.