What is a major factor that all humans share in common in their daily lives and can be found in farming, fermented food, the human body and the environment? The answer is microorganisms. Microorganisms are closely connected with and intertwined into our daily lives. Also, if microorganisms did not exist on earth, humans would not have been able to survive. Therefore, CBT reporters had an interview with Park Soo-je, a professor of Biology at Jeju National University who majored in microbiology at CBNU. In November last year, a joint research team led by professor Park Soo-je discovered a marine environmental toxicity removal substance. This is not only used to eliminate toxicity of nitrite in the ocean, to result in the artificial supply of nitrogen nutrients, but it is also considered ecologically valuable. -Ed.
1. Please give us a brief self introduction, and tell us why you majored in microbiology.
I am Park Soo-je who enrolled in CBNU in 1999. I completed both the undergraduate and graduate school courses there, and I am currently a professor of Department of Biology at Jeju National University. To briefly explain why I majored in microbiology, I wanted to become a geneticist through a science biography that I read when I was young. In fact, I do not remember why I wanted to be a geneticist because I was so young, but one clear memory seems to have been a longing for the understanding of genetics after reading a book of the part about the seedless watermelon. As I grew up, my interest in genetics gradually turned into an interest in microbiology.
2. What made you take a professional course in the field of microorganisms?
The influence of small microorganisms, like the butterfly effect, has a major impact on the ecosystem of the earth, including human diseases. Numerous studies have been conducted through world researchers, but it is still difficult for us to assess the potential of microorganisms. This is a great attraction for me in microbiology that there are still many microorganisms that are unknown, and that as the research progresses, they are surprised by the potential of microorganisms.
3. Can you explain, in simple terms, in what field microorganisms are closely related to real life?
Animals and plants, including humans, cannot live without microorganisms. However, on the contrary, microorganisms can survive without plants and animals. One of the most representative things that I talk to students about is nitrogen gas, which accounts for the majority of the earth’s atmosphere. This nitrogen gas is so stable that it is less responsive to other gasses because it has a stable chemical structure. It is the microorganism that makes the stable nitrogen gas a form of reactive ammonia. One example is root bacteria. Ammonia, in that form, is what makes plants grow, and people and animals survive by eating them. This seems to overestimate microorganisms too much, but it is true. No one on earth can make nitrogen gas into ammonia by themselves. It is only possible through microbial and human chemistry.
4. What are some detailed examples of when only one microbial change or creation can change our daily lives?
There are some common representative foods that we eat. Kimchi, for example, contains lactobacillus which ferments carbohydrates to make lactic acid, and after that, it creates an environment in which pathogens cannot grow because of its low pH. Beer is also made in a similar way. If there were no microorganisms, there would have been no other food, not just kimchi and beer. The bad side is currently COVID-19. Our daily lives are already changing because of negative microbial ctivities.
5. The CBT reporters heard that your team discovered a marine environmental toxicity removal substance in a study conducted last year. Nitrite is known to be used as a food preservative, so can it be developed soon to the point where there are no toxic substances in food preservatives?
The study mentioned is a basic study of microorganisms that removes nitrite. Much of the ammonia entering the ocean or soil is converted into toxic substances, such as nitrite, through biological reactions. At this time, researchers can consider the application of cultivated microorganisms to remove converted nitrite through this study. Nevertheless, the food additive, nitrite used as a preservative, cannot be removed in any form.
6. Is there a big difference between the amount of nitrate in cooked or uncooked food such as ham?
Many people claim that it is removed by cooking or boiling food, but I doubt that it is possible to remove substances that have already undergone chemical reactions; there is no way to control a chemical reaction which is already over. It is just that boiling food removes the salty taste.
7. What does microbiology mean to you?
For me, microbiology is something I still do not fully grasp. It is a study that I can do, want to do, and have fun doing. It’s like destiny to me. To come right out, I seem to be fascinated by microbiology’s charm, and by pushing and pulling with microbiology.
8. What topic do you want to study more about?
This part is very secret, but I am currently studying to obtain genetic information on unknown microorganisms by using ecological genetic analysis techniques. Also, the research includes viruses, too. I am planning a very big mission with an overseas group.
9. Can you give advice to students who are aiming to become professors like you?
I am lucky enough to have a job as a professor, so I have been researching microbiology until now. This is no part that I dare to advise others, because I also have limited experience and thoughts. Nevertheless, if I had to say a few words, then just do it. I do not know what you want to do, but you, who are reading this article, already know what to do. You just need the agreement of others. Sometimes, you need to be selfish, so just look at how you can be happy with the decisions you make, within the bounds of morality and law.