Microbiology is the study of microscopically-small organisms. It involves understanding viruses, bacteria, fungi, molds, and other microorganisms, which is why microbiology is relevant to piercers. It should be every piercer's top priority to protect their clients from dastardly microscopic organisms, but to successfully combat them, piercers have to first understand microorganisms.
A microbe is a single-celled organism that's so small that it can't be seen with the naked eye. Billions of microbes can be present on a single person's hand, and it would take millions of them to fill the tiny eye of a needle. They're the oldest life form to inhabit planet earth, dating back well before dinosaurs even. Microbes are everywhere--they're in the water we bathe in and drink, the food we eat, the air we breathe, and the ground beneath our feet. They break down garbage, help us digest food, and contribute to the development of plant life. Bottom line: Microbes are vital to our existence, but it's a one-way street; if human life got wiped out tomorrow, microbes would keep on going strong.
Microbes include bacteria, fungi, archaea (i.e. a kingdom or colony of single-celled organisms with bacteria-like characteristics), and protists (e.g. algae, mold, amoebas, and protozoa). They generally fall into one of two broad categories: eukaryotic organisms and prokaryotic organisms. Eukaryotic organisms have DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid, a self-replicating material that carries genetic information) that's enclosed within the nucleus of each cell, and they include fungi and protists like algae and mold. Prokaryotic organisms, on the other hand, do not have nuclei to house their DNA; they include bacteria and archaea. Although there's debate as to whether or not viruses are living creatures or not, they are also considered a major type of microbe in addition to prokaryotic and eukaryotic organisms.
Since microbes are too small to be seen with our eyes alone, we have to use special tools to identify and examine them. High-powered microscopes are one such tool. Cultures and staining can also be used to gain a deeper understanding of microorganisms. Additionally, microbiologists examine DNA and RNA (ribonucleic acid, a nucleic acid present in all living cells) sequences in nucleic acid to determine what types of microbes they're dealing with, since less than 1% of the microbes in common environments can be cultured in isolation with current technology.
A virus is a small, infectious agent that can only replicate itself within the living cells of other organisms, like humans, animals and even plants. Viruses are the smallest microbes. To give you an idea of how they compare in size to other microbes, MicrobeWorld.org wrote that if you enlarged an average virus, it would be equivalent in size to a baseball, whereas an average bacterium would be roughly the size of a pitcher's mound. By contrast, one single cell out of all the millions of cells in your body would be like a ballpark. All three things are microscopically small in reality, but viruses are truly the tiniest of them all. It's no wonder they're so sneaky and able to hop from person to person without us having a clue until we're miserably sick!
There are millions of different viruses in the world, but only 5,000 or so have been described in detail by scientists to date. They're the most abundant biological entity on earth and can be found in nearly every ecosystem.
There are 2-3 components to a virus: genetic material made from either DNA or RNA, a protein coating that protects the genes, and sometimes a lipid coating around the protein coating to protect a virus when it's outside of a cell. Since they carry genetic material, reproduce and evolve, some scientists classify viruses as living creatures. However, viruses don't have all of the key characteristics that normally define something as a living organism. For instance, they have no cell structure of their own.
Viruses can be spread in many ways, but usually there's some exchange of fluids involved. Even when insects spread viruses between plants, they're doing so by picking up tainted fluids from one plant and then contaminating another plant with them. Blood-sucking insects can spread viruses among animals and people; for instance, heart worm is transferred from infected mosquitoes to dogs. People spread viruses between each other sexually, through the oral-fecal route, and through intentional or inadvertent transfer of oral fluids from person-to-person. For instance, if you're sick and you cover your mouth with your hand when you sneeze, and then you immediately touch a doorknob, the next person who touches that doorknob may pick up your virus if they touch their mouth, nose or eyes before washing their hands.
There are vaccines available to protect animals and people from certain viruses, but with millions of viruses out there, it's impossible to combat them all. This issue is compounded by the fact that viruses are constantly evolving and finding ways to keep infecting people, animals and plant life even after they've been administered vaccines against the original forms of the viruses.
While viruses may be the smallest type of microbe, prokaryotic organisms are the smallest life forms that can live independently. Most prokaryotes are single-celled organisms, but they can sometimes form multi-celled structures. Bacteria and bacteria-like archaea are the two domains (categories) into which prokaryotes are divided.
Prokaryotic organisms have cell walls, but they lack organelles (organized or specialized structures within a cell) and organized nuclei. They can be dangerous and cause infections, but they can also be beneficial. For example, there are some prokaryotes used to ferment alcohol and dairy products, and others aid in the decomposition process.
Prokaryotic cells have several components: Each one has a plasma membrane that protects the cell from the environment, a genome within a chromosome that acts as the cell's control center, and ribosomes that serve as a sort of work bench within the cell where proteins are created--proteins that give each cell its structure and that determine its job. Some prokaryotes also have flagella, which are whip-like structures that help them move around. It's the lack of internal membranes and organized nuclei in prokaryotic cells that differentiates them from eukaryotic organisms, and it's their cellular framework that separates them from viruses.
Bacteria are by far the most common types of prokaryotes, but bacteria and archaea together represent some of the oldest living organisms on earth. Prokaryotes have been around for roughly two-thirds of the earth's history! They can survive on nearly any organic compound and can use some inorganic compounds as food sources, too. Many are also able to live in extreme circumstances, like in severely salty water and at volcanic temperatures.
Although some bacteria can lead to diseases developing in plants, animals and humans, most prokaryotes are pretty harmless. Many actually exist to sustain higher life forms. They speed up the process of decay, make soil fertile, aid in the development of antibiotics, are used in food preparation, and more.
Fungi and protists--which include different types of mold, algae, amoebas, and protozoa--are eukaryotic organisms. Eukaryotes are a step up from prokaryotes by way of their composition. They have full membrane-bound structures (organelles) whereas prokaryotes do not.
A eukaryote is what you would call a more classic cell. Each eukaryote has an organized nucleus with a nuclear envelope around it; this acts as the cell's brain and holds its DNA. They also typically have organelles that work to make each cell a self-sufficient organism that can live independently. A eukaryote's organelles and organized DNA allow it to develop parts, like a "tail" (flagellum) and cilia (little hairs that also act like legs) that help it move around. Eukaryotes can get quite large--in fact, they're generally a couple hundred times bigger than the average prokaryote.
Eukaryotes can do just about anything. These cells have helped organisms advance to amazing new levels of specialization throughout the earth's history. Without eukaryotes, human beings could not exist. It may seem crazy that things like algae and mold are at the root of human existence, but that's just the way it is.
Good Microbes vs. Bad Microbes
Mysophobia is a fear of microbes that cause various human illnesses. Even people who don't suffer from mysophobia often mistakenly view microbes as purely negative things that can wreak havoc on the human body. Ironically, though, microbes aren't just at the root of ill-health. They do us a lot of good, too. They make it possible for us to create antibiotics, clone plants and even make fermented products like vinegar, alcohol and various dairy goods.
That said, there are plenty of bad microbes that can cause problems for piercers. Viruses, bad bacteria, and many molds can make a person very sick, so you can't let them flourish in your tattoo and piercing shop. Whether you, a coworker or a client brings them in or they start growing in moist environments, like the corners of your autoclave, sooner or later bad microbes will begin to spread through your work space if you don't keep it clean enough.
It's very important to wash your hands thoroughly and regularly, in addition to wearing gloves while you modify clients and clean-up before and after performing piercings and other body mods. You also have to keep your modification areas, clean room and piercing tools thoroughly clean. There are several free articles in the Shop Safety section of our Information Center that will guide you on how you should wash your hands and clean your tools and work space, including:
- Guidelines for Hand Hygiene
- Proper Post-Modification Clean-up Procedures
- Tattoo & Piercing Sterilization Techniques
- Sterilization Alternatives for Small Shops
You may also be interested in reading our Why It's Important to Wear Gloves When Modifying article and learn more about the cleaning products and sterilization tools we offer by reading these articles:
- Tergazyme vs. Alconox
- Ultrasonic Cleaners
Keeping your hands and your work space clean and sterile will serve as your number one defense against the viruses, mold, bacteria, and other dastardly microbes that could harm your clients if not kept in check.