Microorganisms include bacteria, fungi, archaea, protists and viruses, and are among the earliest known life forms. The first of these four types of microorganisms may either be free-living or parasitic. Viruses can only be parasitic, since they always reproduce inside other living things.
Microorganisms live almost everywhere on earth where there is liquid water, including hot springs on the ocean floor and deep inside rocks within the earth's crust. Such habitats are lived in by extremophiles.
Microorganisms are critical to nutrient recycling in ecosystems, because they act as decomposers. Because some microorganisms can also take nitrogen out of the air, they are an important part of the nitrogen cycle. Pathogenic, or harmful, microbes can invade other organisms and cause disease.
Free-living microbes get their energy in many different ways. Some use photosynthesis, like plants do. Some break down natural chemicals in their environment. Others feed on things that were once living, such as fallen leaves and dead animals, causing them to breakdown or decay. Some fungi and bacteria cause food to decay. Moldy bread or fruit, sour milk, and rotten meat are examples of decayed food. In nature, decayed materials mix with soil, providing essential nutrients for plants to use. Without this process, the nutrients in the soil would run out. These types of organisms are called decomposers. They are the natural recyclers of living things on our planet.
Some microbes, often called germs, cause illness or disease. They are parasites which live by invading living things. Chickenpox, mumps, and measles are all caused by viruses. Some bacteria are also germs. They cause many infectious diseases including tuberculosis and tetanus. Certain bacteria cause tooth decay. It is possible to protect humans against some harmful microbes by storing and preparing food properly, cleaning the teeth, washing hands, and by avoiding close contact with ill people.
All animals seem to have bacteria and protozoa living in or on them without doing much harm. Sometimes, as with herbivores, the microorganisms are vital to the digestion of food. The human gut has more organisms living inside it than there are cells in the human body.
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Microorganism Facts for Kids. Kiddle Encyclopedia.